Tragedy struck SUNY New Paltz on Tuesday, Aug. 22 when alumnus and long-time Sodexo employee, Darold Thompson, passed away at home.
Thompson, 49, was employed at the college for the past 17 years and became a fixture of what most describe as the embodiment of New Paltz’s spirit. Having graduated from the college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Black Studies in 1999, Thompson became well-known amongst students and faculty alike.
Many students, upon hearing the news of the New Paltzian’s passing, were struck by a sense of loss, realizing that “The Man Behind the Register” would no longer be around to greet them when they went to eat at Hasbrouck Dining Hall.
To many, Thompson was much more than a face in the crowd. As a result, students began to take immediate action as the masses flooded back to campus. On Monday, Aug. 28, one student, Joe Dowd created a petition on change.org, proposing that, with a specific amount of signatures, the dining hall be renamed to honor the late employee.
Met with immense vigor to honor Thompson’s legacy, students were eager to speak out about his character.
Second year communication disorders major Sarah Gruber recalled a memory from right after the 2016 Presidential Election.
“He came to the (student-held) vigil after the election and I think it meant a lot to students to see someone from the faculty come as well because it showed that there was support coming from a lot of places,” she said.
But Thompson’s generosity did not stop there.
Third year communication disorders major Liz Dumblis came forward to share Thompson’s continued efforts to help out students like herself.
“When my club was in dire need of something for our club meeting, Darold began recommending places for us to look, but when we told him we already checked, he offered to drive to Target for us because he knew we didn’t have transportation and to pick up what we needed,” Dumblis said. “He cared about the students.”
Thompson’s co workers were also quick to voice their affection for the head cashier.
Sodexo Supervisor and coworker of Thompson’s for 15 years, Paola Portuese, spoke fondly of her friend.
“He had a good soul; he was so intelligent and he knew everything about the registers along with the meal plans,” she said. “He loved the students, he would tell them like it was and sometimes he even made chocolates on Valentine’s Day to hand out, in an attempt to make them smile.”
When asked about the petition, Portuese found the sentiment touching but explained that it most likely would not happen.
“This family has lost members before; just this year we lost another one of our staff,” she said. “If we did it for one, we would have to do it for it all.”
Thompson’s character is further displayed in a video created by third-year digital media and English major Shrien Alshabasy entitled, “The Man Behind the Register.”
Thompson is seen talking to the camera, explaining his origins dating back to Brooklyn where he was very involved in music and where he would graduate from high school at the age of 16.
The video goes on further to Thompson describing his experience with the students. “I find that sometimes students just need that little ‘extra,’” he said. “So many times they’ll complain like ‘oh I have this exam,’ but I would always ask them, ‘did you study for this exam, if so, why are you worrying about something that you can’t do anything for other than what you’ve already done?’”
Thompson cited this little “extra” as important.
“If I can guide them some place, or recommend an instructor they didn’t already know of, it’s important because we didn’t have anybody like that for us, or I guess for me,” he said.
Additionally, Thompson speaks candidly to the camera about his experience first coming to the college.
“It wasn’t until I came to New Paltz that I fully understood the definition of racism,” he said, referring to his higher education.
The video was originally created for Alshabasy’s Digital Storytelling class and has gained a significant amount of viewership since the employee’s death.
“I featured Darold because of his significance on campus – as a worker, as a friend, a colleague, a mentor and a symbol of Black struggle and perseverance,” she said. “I never thought I would learn so much about his life and that he would open up to us in the way that he did but I am grateful that he did because it left the campus with memories of his life.”
Thompson revealed a lot to the Alshabasy during the interview.
“He had a hard life, he told us about times when he wouldn’t have an extra pair of socks during childhood and gave us an anecdote about a disabled student he would help out on campus. He talked about things bigger than himself – racial politics, New Paltz and perception, growing up in poverty and struggling through higher education,” she said. “He truly loved the students at SUNY New Paltz and was aware that some of them treated him poorly, objectifying him and making cruel jokes but he also acknowledged that college students are in a constant struggle and he was graciously forgiving.”
Alshabasy explained that even through the hurt, Thompson did everything with a smile.
The petition, having had time to circulate via Facebook has usurped 2,000 signatures and caught the attention of President Donald P. Christian, for whom the petition was originally intended.
On Thursday, Aug. 31, Christian called for community dialogue in an email addressing the petition.
In the email, Christian describes himself as “moved by the outpouring support for a member of our community,” but explains that he is “unable to honor the request” due to it being “inconsistent with longstanding practice and current Board of Trustees policy.”
Christian moved on to admit that, during a time when our nation’s discourse revolves around the removal of Confederate statues to prevent furthering the preservation of the legacy of slavery, it is time to foster open communication regarding the possible renaming of the Hasbrouck complex building.
The buildings Hasbrouck Dining Hall, Bevier, Crispell, Deyo, DuBois and Lefevre are all named after the Huguenot families, the original settlers of New Paltz. Each one of these families are recorded to have owned slaves, which leaves what Christian described as a “shameful legacy” and will have a “very different, painful impact for African-American members of our campus community than for others.”
Looking at the attention Thompson’s death has brought to community dialogue, Alshabasy stands strongly in her belief that the regular passerby can have a strong and lasting impression on many.
“Darold is proof that the people we see everyday [whether it be] cashiers, waiters, teachers, janitors, students, they matter,” she said.