When visitors come to The Palestra, they look for Dan Harrell, because for many fans of the iconic building, he is The Palestra.
As the custodian of one of the most revered college basketball arenas in America, Harrell, 66, has taken his responsibility for keeping the court pristine seriously for 21 years. During that time, he has also made the most of working at Penn.
Harrell arrived on campus at the same time as former basketball coach Fran Dunphy, and says the University opened up “a whole new world” to him. “I guess everybody in the world complains about where they work,” says Harrell. “But if you handle Penn right, Penn’s a good place to work.”
Long interested in attending college, Harrell used his Penn tuition benefits to take classes at the University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 2000 from the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (then called the College of General Studies). At his Commencement, Harrell carried a decorated mop as a salute to the job that made his Ivy League education possible.
For a time, in addition to doing custodial work, Harrell served as an assistant lightweight football coach under Coach Bill Wagner. “I had two jobs here,” Harrell says. “I was custodian in the daytime and part-time football coach with sprint football in the Athletic Department.”
The Current visited with Harrell at The Palestra recently to chat about caring for the “Cathedral of College Basketball,” becoming a Penn graduate and the friendly ghosts of West Philadelphia.
Q. How did you end up at Penn?
A. I was out of work. I worked at GE. Nowadays they call it the Left Bank. I worked in there for like 20 years and got laid off. I was doing odd jobs, everything from bartending to digging ditches for plumbers. I had a family. I saved enough money to get by, but I was looking for something more stable with benefits. Everything I have I owe to the Teamsters Local 115. They sent me down here and got me a job in housekeeping. If you say housekeeping or janitor, for some people it’s not too appealing. It didn’t make any difference to me. It was a job.
Q. What has kept you here for over two decades?
A. The need for a job, basically, and the benefits for my children. Even if I didn’t like it here, I would have stayed. But I realized right away it was a good place to work. It wasn’t just a job. The people you work with and work for, they’re good people. I developed close relationships with all of the athletes, the basketball coaches and the volleyball coaches, and they all make you feel a part of the program. You weren’t just working here, they make you feel important and that what you do is important to them and their programs. It gives you more incentive to come to work and do a good job.
One year, when we won the Ivy League title, Fran Dunphy gave me a championship ring. Not too many custodians can go around saying that. And then when I graduated, they actually gave me another championship ring.
Q. Are you responsible for maintaining the entire Palestra?
A. My No. 1 charge area is the downstairs area of The Palestra. It’s the playing floor, the baskets, the floor locker rooms—which is a lot of work—and the 1971 Media Room. It’s a busy job, which makes it a good job to me. What’s nice about it is your responsibility each day changes, depending on what the activity is that day. The core thing is to keep the locker rooms and floor clean and playable. The floor has to be playable. It has to be tacky and that involves certain chemicals. There’s a difference between what the volleyball team likes and what the basketball team likes and if there’s a shootaround. Game day here is different because usually there’s a shootaround in the middle of the day, so you do the floor in the morning, you do the floor after the shootaround, it has to be done before the game. It’s a fluctuating responsibility.
Q. Do you have a favorite Palestra memory?
A. I get asked that question a lot. There’s not one in particular, there are just too many memories. I have good memories of when we won championships here, when [former Penn basketball player] Michael Jordan [not that Michael Jordan] sat on the basket and cut the nets down.
I actually have good memories of when things weren’t that good, like the Cornell game this past year. That was a great game. The reason it is a good memory is because it brought back memories of better times. To see the place come alive is a really good memory because these kids worked real hard. You could see it in their faces how happy they were. I even had a tear in my eye, to be honest with you. Being here 20-plus years, you still carry the emotions of the place. There are so many good memories.
Q. You talked in a previous interview about ghosts in The Palestra. Were you embellishing or were you serious?
A. Let me put it this way: This place is without a doubt, spirited. It’s not like ‘Poltergeist.’ It’s nice people; their spirits are here. There’s definitely something good here. It’s not an evil thing. I’ve seen them. You spend some time here and I guarantee you you’re going to say, ‘Dan’s not crazy because the place has spirits.’ There’s definitely a presence here, and it’s a good thing.
Q. What motivated you to go back to school and earn your degree?
A. I went to Saint Joseph’s for a year out of high school. I was too young. From my experience, you don’t have to jump into college when you’re 18. You can wait a couple years. Every human being sort of wishes they had done something when they were younger as they get older. Things just don’t work out when you’re raising your family. You sacrifice some things to take care of your family, which is what you should do. I was always involved with coaching youth football in the city, Southwest Philly in particular, and I was always interacting with teachers in schools. [Getting my degree] was something I always wanted to do and here was the opportunity. To be honest with you, I enjoyed going to school here. It was difficult, it was hard work, but I just found it refreshing. The professors were motivating and encouraging and so was the student body. A lot of my courses were at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon so I was in there with the student body and I got a lot of encouragement and support from them. It’s good to be around young people and to be young at heart. I’m a lot like The Palestra, I’m old but I’m young at heart.
Q. At your graduation in 2000, former Penn President Judith Rodin called you an ‘authentic Penn hero.’ Do you see yourself as a hero?
A. I never try to present myself that way. I got some nice letters from people back when I graduated saying how much I encouraged them, people I don’t even know from all over the country. I think I’ve always been a pretty good motivator but to say I’m a hero? Nah. Hero’s a heavy word. The heroes are the ones who support you.
Q. You have said that Penn gave you ‘a better understanding of what happened to my own city.’ As a lifelong Philadelphian, what do you think the city needs to do to get back on its feet?
A. I may sound old-fashioned but I just think that sometimes people themselves have to take a little bit of responsibility. I think instead of saying, ‘What does the City of Philadelphia have to do?’ or ‘What does the government have to do?’ I think it gets down to a more grassroots thing where people have to take a look at their own neighborhoods, their own environments. Fathers have to be fathers and mothers have to be mothers. The family values have to come back and until family values come back, there’s not too much anybody can do for you. The government should be there for guidance and help and support, but folks just have to take responsibility for their own families.
Q. Is it true that you have six daughters?
A. Six daughters.
Q. I have one daughter and she’s a real handful.
A. She’s gonna be your best friend. Everyone wants a boy, but she’ll be your best friend. She’s 6? She’s gonna be 16 tomorrow. I’ve got 14 grandchildren. All my daughters had to sit through games here at The Palestra. And my granddaughter was here when she was 3 weeks old.
Q. There are rumors of your pending retirement. Would you care to confirm or deny the reports?
A. I hate to use the word ‘retire.’ I’m going to spend the next couple of months looking around and seeing what my options are. I’m ready for another chapter in my life, but I want the chapter to be in the Penn book. I’d like to see what’s here for me at Penn. I hope somebody here recognizes what I can contribute to the goals at Penn. I’m strong in the community ... people recognize me and think of The Palestra. I’m ready to move on to something else. This is a young man’s job. They say the mind controls the body, but I don’t know about that.
Originally published on June 10, 2010