It’s 7:30 on a Wednesday night inside the Phyllis P. Marshall Center. Taps jump from Debbie Smalling’s laptop keys as she steadily works from behind the information desk.
An older man in a green polo shirt sits adjacent to the student assistant, leaning back in his chair and surveying the quiet halls.
Students wave at him as they pass by.
“Hey Donald!” they shout.
Donald Mobley nods, barely breaking his relaxed position with a smile.
“What’s up, man?” Mobley asks as he slaps hands with studio art senior John Paret. “You graduate yet?”
They catch up like old friends, Paret assuring Mobley he’s working on his last year now.
Mobley’s worked as a building manager at the Marshall Center for 30 years, decades before most of the 20something students who call him Donald were born.
“People see me around here all the time, but they don’t know me,” Mobley said. “When I’m not here, they know it.”
Those who are not on a first–name basis with the building manager at least recognize Mobley because he is always around. His salt-and-pepper cornrows are hard to miss.
“He knows them all,” said Marshall Center Director Joe Synovec. “I think he enjoys working with the students. He takes cares of them – whether they need extra equipment or chairs. He’s our face at night.”
Synovec has worked at USF for 10 years and closely with Mobley for the past few.
From daily student meetings to catered parties, conferences and weddings, Synovec estimates the Marshall Center hosts 4,000 events a year.
Mobley’s job extends beyond after-hours supervisor to instant host, security guard, setup crew and repairman.
Alex Wilhelmsen, a D.J for WBUL, started working for the student radio station in the Marshall Center basement two years ago and said he has become accustomed to seeing Mobley around.
“Back when the station was open until about 1 a.m., he’d be down about 12:50, 12:55 or so, saying, ‘It’s time to go man,'” Wilhelmsen said.
When Mobley tapped on the studio window, Wilhelmsen knew.
“We consider all students our customers,” said Greg Jackson, the Marshall Center’s coordinator of events and meeting services.
He’s worked with Mobley for 20 years.
“That’s his job: customer service – to try to help out any of our customers,” Jackson said. “If he can’t do it, he has the means … to get some assistance.”
But sometimes, a two-way radio and a chain full of keys aren’t enough.
Mobley made an unscheduled stop at the women’s restroom several months ago when a pipe broke on the Marshall Center’s second floor.
“You had all this water that was flowing out of this pipe inside the ladies’ restroom, and Donald was there,” Jackson said. “He had a bucket, and he had a mop trying to get this water, because water was flowing everywhere.”
Mobley called Maintenance Superintendent Mike Barber, who had to shut the water off to the entire building to stop the stream.
“He was trying to keep the water (from coming out by putting) his thumb over it, which is 93 pounds of water,” Barber said. “By the time I got there he was soaking wet – you had to be there to enjoy it.”
Colleagues said Mobley, clad in tucked-in shirts and cowboy boots, takes pride in his job by getting his uniforms monogrammed.
“He always dresses very neat,” Jackson said. “There was Donald, walking around, slushing around in this water with his leather shoes.”
According to Jackson, Mobley’s job doesn’t just cover running the maintenance end of the Marshall Center – he also works to give the students a stronger sense of security while they’re in the building.
“He has to react,” Jackson said. “There have been a couple of times when people from off the streets – homeless people – will come in and kind of hang out and harass people. He (has) called the University Police over and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this guy harassing this young lady.'”
“You don’t want to mess with him,” WBUL Assistant Station Manager Patricia Bery said of her first impression of Mobley.
She lost her phone. She asked Mobley about it at the information desk and said he gave it to her several questions later. Now they’re on a first-name basis.
“When I think of Donald, I think of a cool cat,” Bery said. “Hands in the pockets, cool, slicked-back hair.”
Student Events Manager for the Marshall Center Dwayne Isaacs agreed with Bery, adding he enjoys working with Mobley when he gets the chance.
“He’s probably the only building manager you can walk up to and have a conversation with and feel like you’ve known him for a long time,” Isaacs said.
When Isaacs served as the executive director for USF’s Homecoming Steering Committee, he called on Mobley regularly.
“There are a lot of meetings, a lot of rooms that need to be booked, a lot of things that come up,” Isaacs said. “Donald always has some way he takes care of it.”
Mobley even talked Isaacs through buying his first car.
“He sat me down, told me where to go, what to get, how much it cost,” Isaacs said.
Two years later, Isaacs said he still has his Ford Escort and a friend he can talk to about anything.
“He’s almost like a father figure,” Isaacs said.
Isaacs said Mobley’s not just kind to those he knows. From shutting off forgotten sprinklers and collecting trash moments before an outside event is scheduled, to opening up the Information Desk early on Saturdays for lost passersby, Isaacs said Mobley doesn’t wait to be asked for help.
“He’s really in tune with the students. He knows who you are, and if he doesn’t know your name, he’s seen you and knows of you. He knows what organization you’re a part of. He knows what you guys are about,” Isaacs said. “If someone is lost and you’re looking for a meeting, you don’t even need to look at the directions, you just go right up to Donald.”
Seeing Mobley interact and joke around with his co-workers, one would never guess the age difference.
“Humor – it does wonders for the soul,” Mobley said. “Just for that short period, it takes you away from the world.”
So what’s Mobley’s secret to staying young?
“(I) don’t do coffee. Don’t drink sodas,” he said. “No sweets.”
Co-workers say he used to eat fried chicken nearly every day for lunch until his doctor told him to cut back. His favorite dish now?
“Possum and grits,” he said with a straight face.
With a hefty side of humor. He carries it with him right next to his two-way radio and set of keys.
The next time a water pipe breaks or a door needs to be unlocked in the Marshall Center, ask for the building manager. However, with more than 40,000 students on campus, Mobley said not to be surprised if he doesn’t recall a name right away.
“I see so many people in general,” he said. “I could see you today and not remember your name tomorrow. But that’s just me.”
Don’t be surprised if he waves back. Mobley keeps his friends, like his tools, close.