Story by Robyn Smith
Photos by Dan Stein
There’s a crisp chill in the air that hints at the coming arrival of fall. Six, maybe seven, students wait until the countertop window opens, spilling out bright fluorescent light and a faint smell of warm chocolate chip cookies. A middle-aged man with round glasses and a mustache calls out the names of the slightly stumbling students, confirming their usual order before putting it together almost instantly.
A self-described “bartender of cookies,” Don Willey, known and beloved as “Willey” by JMU students, has given a wealth of unexpected advice to students during his time at the Dog Pound. “Whatever you decide to do in life, do something you enjoy doing,” Willey says. Willey gets a lot of questions during his late night shifts, many dealing with the meaning of life and how to achieve dreams. “Don’t worry about the money; you’ll get that sooner or later. No good having a job and being rich if you’re miserable,” Willey says. “I stayed broke most of the time over the years, but all these different jobs have paid off. I’m retired and I’m enjoying myself.” Before he retired, Willey worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections. He’s lived all over the area, from Staunton to Richmond to Harrisonburg. However, his initial move to the Valley was an opportune accident. “I was originally driving through Virginia and my car broke down in Staunton. That was in 1978. I just never left,” Willey says. “When I retired, I just grabbed a job up here and kept on working all I could work.” It was his experience with correctional centers that made Willey an expert at memorizing names. On slow days at work, he would do nothing but chat with inmates. He knew everyone — thousands of inmates — by their identification number.
“I could still knock out most of those peoples’ numbers right now, and it’s been a long time,” Willey says. “At JMU, I just had to remember names, not numbers, and after that it was a piece of cake.” After several years, Willey eventually convinced his family to move to the Valley. His brother Norman works at GrilleWorks in Top Dog Café. Their mother lives at home, and Willey appreciates being able to take care of her as she gets older. “It’s kind of weird because when I first moved to this area back in the 1970s, and the whole time I worked for the prison, it turned out about 95 percent of my friends were out of state,” Willey says. “We had almost nobody that was actually from here, but they’ve lived here for 30, almost 40 years, which is kind of strange.” When he first began working for Dining Services in 2007, he served at GrilleWorks. During the regular dinner rush, he could have drink orders ready for the first 15 people in line. Willey might not have much trouble memorizing the names and orders of many students, but only some have made a permanent impression over the five years that he’s worked at Dog Pound.
“The student that stands out is somebody that knows what they want,” Willey says. “Not in their order, but in life. You have somebody who doesn’t know what they want to do after graduation, or somebody who doesn’t even know how to get to graduation. I always remember the student that’s got direction in life and knows what they want.”
Although students usually want different things out of life, they have surprisingly similar orders from Dog Pound. According to Willey, the majority of students want chocolate chip cookies. One Saturday night in mid-September, during the last 45 minutes of his shift, Willey had sold all of the chocolate chip cookies in stock as well as an entire case of cinnamon buns. “That was a busy night,” Willey says. While weekend shifts are usually jam-packed with students, during the week Dog Pound is either completely deserted or has lines of at least 20 students. To stay awake and entertained during the secluded moments, Willey keeps the music playing. As a passionate fan of blues and classic rock, he has a lot of opinions about whose albums should and shouldn’t be played.
“When I was in college, it wasn’t called classic rock, it was just rock. Now it’s classic rock,” Willey says. “I used to go to a lot of concerts. You don’t have a big city here, but you have decent concerts here … Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen Allman Brothers four or five times; I’ve seen ZZ Top, Bob Dylan, Ted Nugent — that’s a wild concert. I don’t know if he’s wild anymore, but he was wild back in the ’70s.”
Many students go to Dog Pound for a late night study snack or a weekend craving. JMU’s Anime Club meets at Dog Pound informally each week after club dinners on Tuesdays. Two members, 2015 alumna Anna Bergin and junior writing, rhetoric and technical communication major Caroline McLaughlin, have greeted Willey with the same “super friendliness” he always greets them with. Since Willey has been at Dog Pound since before they were freshmen, they both claim he’s been a quintessential part of their college experience.
“I’ve only seen one occasion where he wasn’t working,” says McLaughlin, a regular Dog Pound patron. “It was really strange to me.” Willey’s practice of having his regulars’ orders ready when he worked at GrilleWorks has carried over into Dog Pound as well, and the welcoming habit especially resonates with Bergin. “I’ve been coming for so long that he knows me and he knows my order and he’s always super happy to see me,” Bergin says. “It’s always nice when you have somebody who knows who you are even though they don’t have to. They’re just nice enough to figure out who people are.”
Bergin and McLaughlin almost always order chocolate chip cookies with chocolate milk on the side, and Willey is sure to remember. He greets them both by name when they stroll up to his window. While he’s accustomed to the difficult hours, working at Dog Pound was not what Willey wanted to do at JMU. “When I retired from my other job I swore I’d never work another night shift again,” Willey says. “They stuck me in there when someone quit and they kept me because no one else can keep up, I guess. No one wants the hours. I enjoy it. As long as I’ve got coffee and I’ve got music, I don’t care. I’ll keep on working. I don’t think I’ve missed a day in that shop since I’ve been in there and I’ve been in there since 2010.”
Dog Pound is open from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Willey works from Tuesday to Saturday.