The Ivy League Custodian


Michael Vitez | Philadelphia Inquirer | March 2000

When Dan Harrell applied to the University of Pennsylvania at age 46, he was asked to take a composition class to prove he was Ivy League material. The first assignment: write about a favorite place.

The young woman on his left chose Paris in the spring; the one on his right, the slopes of Aspen.

“I’ve never been out of Southwest Philly,” Harrell recalled, “and I’m thinking I’m in trouble.”

He decided his favorite place was the john.

“Do you know there are 50 different names for it?” he said. “It’s a great place to check out the horses for the next race. Your boss can’t find you there. I wrote four pages, and I got an A.”

On May 22, after 10 years as a part-time student, Harrell will receive his bachelor’s degree. He will graduate surrounded by people who revere him as a Penn institution – not only because of his academic achievement at age 56, but because of the love he lavishes on a fabled floor and the students who play on it.

Harrell is custodian of the Palestra.

Once a day, sometimes twice, he mops the hardwood in one of the most celebrated arenas in college hoops. He has spent, in sum, an eternity on one knee, scraping gum. And when he does his job right, the floor sings to him with the squeak of sneakers.

With a toilet brush in one hand, cleanser in the other, he scours the locker rooms. Not once in his eight years there, he brags, “has there been a case of athlete’s foot.”

Dan Harrell also is a custodian in the larger sense of the word. He looks out for the athletes, scribbles notes of support, gives them rides and good-luck charms, asks about their grandmothers, advises them on classes to take – and, through his pursuit of a dream, inspires them.

“I think he’s the greatest Penn success story,” said Cynthia Johnson Crowley, who played basketball at Penn in 1952 and has since been a fixture at the Palestra. “There isn’t anything he won’t do to make your life better. And in return, it all comes back.”

Fran Dunphy, the men’s coach, calls him “kind of a hero of mine.”

On graduation day, Harrell will dye his six-foot-wide dust mop red and blue, Penn’s colors. He will tape photographs of his mother, father, and brother Frankie, all of them gone now, to the back of the mop, and march with it down Locust Walk to collect his diploma.

“The mop,” he said, “represents where I’m from.”

At 4:55 a.m. on a March Tuesday, the day of the big Penn-Princeton doubleheader, Dan Harrell parked his 1980 Caprice Classic with the rusted roof right at the Palestra’s back door, the best spot in the lot.

Inside, everything was dark. The only sound was Big Daddy Graham talking sports on all-night radio.

“I leave it on for the spirits,” Harrell said.

Writer bio: Michael Vitez wrote human interest stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 30 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1997 for a series of stories titled Final Choices. Vitez, a native of Virginia, lives in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He joined the Inky in 1985.

Continue reading “The Ivy League Custodian”