It’s a happy Friday at American University.
Before our interview, Berlin Thomas smiles proudly behind the cash register as Shane Ryden, AWOL’s multimedia director, snaps her photo. A student walks up to the register.
“Happy Friday!” Thomas says and takes the student’s order with a smile from meal swipe to receipt.
Thomas is a food service worker at American University, who currently serves students at Create, a smoothie bar in the School of Public Affairs.
Ryden decides to get some photos of Thomas outside of SPA, and we walk outside. A sporadic chorus of “Happy Friday!”s from students punctuates Thomas’ short walk from Create to the front of SPA and back again. She returns the greeting with smiles and laughter.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday — it’s always a “happy day” for Thomas, who is known for her signature greeting. Her go-to phrase has made her well-known around campus. When I tell students AWOL is interviewing Thomas, the “‘Happy Tuesday!’ lady,” their faces light up in recognition and with a joy that almost matches Thomas’.
Thomas’ positivity is a staple of on-campus dining and has been for almost 15 years. Off campus, the 78-year-old goes hand dancing, an improvisational swing dance popularized in D.C. in the 1950’s, and takes care of her family.
AWOL wanted to know what was behind all those happy days.
Who are you outside of AU? What do you like to do?
Oh, I like to hand dance at the Chateau Remix. I do oldies. I’m an oldies type of a lady, so I go out, and I hand dance. Like tonight, I will go out and hand dance. A man takes my hand, and we dance, and he twirls me around. And that’s my hobby. I line dance, too.
What about your family?
Well, I have 14 grandchildren, and I have eight great-grandchildren. And my oldest granddaughter lives with me. Then I have an older son. He had a stroke last year on my birthday, so I’m taking care of him.
Where are you from?
I’m from Washington, D.C., D.C. girl. I’m a native Washingtonian.
How has the city changed?
It has changed tremendous. I live right around the corner from Ben’s Chili Bowl, and there’s nothing but highrises there. Well, it used to be clubs, and things like that, stores, mom n’ pop stores, but you don’t see that now where I live. My neighborhood is very interesting.
How has that change kind of affected your life?
It hasn’t. It hasn’t affected my life at all because the subway is up the street, a block away from where I live. I can catch the subway, or I can catch the bus, and the 96 bus will take me to Tenleytown. I catch the shuttle, and I’m here, at work. It don’t take but 15 minutes to get to work from where I live.
And I’ve been working here for 14 ½ years, and I’ve been in a lot of [on-campus dining] stations. And when I started working here 14 ½ years ago, the manager gave me this job, and ever since she gave me this job 14 ½ years ago, I was saying, “Happy whatever-day-it-is.” So the students, we have become friends. I feel like their mom, you know. I’m their mom away from home, and I just enjoy my job.
I’d say most people around campus know you as the “Happy Monday” lady.
Yes! They called me outside!
I know, we couldn’t get past your photos without people saying, “Happy Friday!” So where does all that energy and positivity come from?
It’s just that God gives me the energy. I’m in my middle 70’s, and I enjoy life, and I enjoy this job. I haven’t been on a job as long as I’ve been on this job, you know. It’s just interesting, I’ve met students, students have gone. Two twins, they went to Berlin, and they brought me back a piece of the Berlin wall, and I have the Berlin wall at home, in my closet, in my linen closet.
So, I mean, the students are really nice. I’ve learned some Spanish words. I’ve learned some French words. I’ve had French students, and, you know, they taught me words, and it’s just amazing. It’s really amazing, and that’s why I’m happy every time.
So you’ve been here 14 ½ years.
14 ½ years. It’ll be 15 years March the 24th.
And you’re mid-seventies. Do you have any plans for when you want to retire?
No, I’m not retiring yet. No, no, no. God gives me the strength, lets me wake up, lets me catch the bus, lets me come to work. I stand at the cash register for eight hours, except for my lunch break. I don’t see why people wanna retire. You know, retire and do what? Travel the world? Can’t afford it, you know. So I just work.
So you’ve been here 14, almost 15 years. How has AU changed over those years?
Oh, AU, the students have really, really changed. You know, some of them are not too happy. Some of them you can’t say, “Happy whatever-day-it-is,” you know. But I try to make them feel at home, ‘cause you know when they come, the freshmen come, and I let their parents know that I’ll keep them straight, make sure they do their homework. I work over the summer, so when the parents come in, let the parents know, don’t worry ‘bout ‘em ‘cause they alright.
Is there any last thing that you would like to tell AU students, or you’d like AU students to know about you?
I would like to tell AU students, it’s okay when you come here, and it’s okay when you have to go to class. It’s okay because one day—I always tell the students this—one day you’ll be making them six figures, you know, because you’re taking your classes, and you’re learning. And just be okay because you’re young. You’ll get a chance to get your six figures, and everything will be okay.
Featured in our Fall 2019 issue.
Photos by Shane Matheu Ryden