“That image of old buildings with ivy, you go in, it’s hot there, it was Ivy League, you know?”

Penn grad Dan Harrell (CGS’00) with one of his passions — the sparkling floorboards of the Palestra.

Housekeeper, Facilities Services
Length of service:
11 years
Other stuff:
He’s also a football coach — he started out coaching Catholic Youth Organization teams, then moved to West Catholic High, and is now the defensive coach for Penn’s sprint football team.

Photoby Candace diCarlo

The last American civilization major at the University of Pennsylvania loves his alma mater and employer truly, madly, deeply, the way a father loves his child.

And just like a father, Dan Harrell (CGS’00) will let you know where he thinks his child has gone astray. The man who keeps the floor of the most storied arena in college basketball spic and span — and who just graduated this May, realizing a dream he put on hold when he graduated from West Catholic High School in 1962 — cannot for the life of him understand why Penn, which pioneered the field of American studies, dropped a program that has provided students like himself valuable insight into the society around them.

Harrell, 56, also thinks that the College of General Studies — the only bachelor’s degree program for working people in the Ivy League — should not be on the outskirts of campus. But don’t get him wrong. He only says these things because he really thinks Penn is special.

Q. What led you to decide to go for your B.A.?
Even out of high school, I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t have the opportunity. And I found out the hard way [the worth of a degree]. I got in at General Electric, I worked my way up from the mailroom into marketing. [If I had a college degree,] I would probably still be there.
   When I first had the opportunity to go, it was truly something I just wanted to do. I always wanted to know if I could do it, and here was the opportunity to do it.
   What I did was I applied to the College of General Studies. [The admissions staff] knew I could do Penn-level work, but they gave you a writing course just to make sure that you could do it. And that’s when that famous essay about the john came out. [The students were asked to write about a favorite place they liked to visit. Harrell, who has never left Southwest Philly, thought about the question and chose the toilet.]

Q. How did the professor like that essay?
Well, she handed it back, and she had a smirk on her face.

Q. Were there any professors you particularly enjoyed?
They were all great. Top of the list was [former English Professor] Larry Robbins, Dr. Melvyn Hammarberg – he was actually the chair of the American Civilization Department when they got rid of it.
   I have only two peeves about Penn. I’ll be indebted for the rest of my life, it’s just – no statement could justify to me why they got rid of Am Civ. It was just a great major, especially in this day and age when there’s so many different cultures coming to this country every week now.

Q. Why?
It’s not just “Christopher Columbus supposedly discovered America” – it’s not a date and a time and what the temperature was on that day, it was why was it, where did they come from, what were their problems, how did they get along with other people, what were the culture problems, what were the group problems? They really got into not when it happened, but why did it happen. It’s like an anthropological approach...
   Southwest Philadelphia itself in the last five, six, seven years, you get the Vietnamese that moved in there, the African-Americans that have moved in there – the whites are moving out only because we don’t understand their culture. These carpetbagger real-estate guys, as soon as a black person moved on the block, they’d say, You got a black guy moving to your block. I remember, I was a kid, I was a witness to it. That’s part of American culture. That’s something to be studied.

Q. Couldn’t they take history courses?
If I gave you the history of the Irish in the United States, it wouldn’t be the same way Am Civ taught the history of the Irish. It’s going to tell you what happened, give you the potato famine, a couple of other things – the Irish came here and 75 percent of the people in Philadelphia of Irish descent are from Donegal. [But] it’s the “why” questions [that are important].

Q. Listening to you talk, I get the impression that if you wanted to, you could go on for a Ph.D. and teach the courses yourself.
I’d love to be a teacher. I’d like to teach a little. Should I? I’d probably end up asking why I’d want to, what I could do — you see, that’s a great Am Civ question — like freedom. Freedom is what you can afford to do. I’m free to go to California. Do you want to give me $300 to go? I would love to teach, but I think I couldn’t afford it.

Q. What was that other peeve you said you had?
When I first entered, CGS was in Logan [Hall], right in the middle of campus. I felt like I was applying to Penn. That image of old buildings with ivy growing up the wall, you go in, there’s no air conditioning, it’s hot there, it was Ivy League, you know? So in the course of the last five or six years, with this reconstruction, they moved CGS to 34th and Market. That is not Penn. That’s Drexel. I have nothing against hairdressing schools, I have nothing against nurses, I have nothing against Drexel. Okay?
   I can see some guy getting off the El at 34th, looking at that building — he could actually decide to go to Drexel. They moved CGS out of Logan Hall, they should put ’em back in Logan Hall. If I was a millionaire, that’s where it’d be.


Originally published on June 1, 2000