The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

There are sounds. Funny sounds. The purr of the vent. The banging of steam pipes. The constant thumping and hammering and buzzing of God knows what. If you listen closely, Dan Harrell says, you can hear them. If you look into the stands for just a split second, you can see them. Sometimes, you can even feel them. There are ghosts, he says. Ghosts at the Palestra. It's 5 a.m. and Harrell, the Palestra's caretaker, is all by himself inside Penn's storied gymnasium. Today, there aren't any ghosts -- at least not yet. "You can just feel it," Harrell says. "You get goose bumps walking back and forth on the floor, like there's something there. Sometimes you hear balls bouncing and people laughing when there's nobody in the building. "You see things, you hear things. People don't admit it, but they do." Go ahead, laugh. As is his habit, Harrell is merely saying what other people are afraid to. • If you take care of Penn, Harrell likes to preach, it'll take care of you. That's why he's surprised more people don't do what he did. He's surprised more people don't wake up at 4 a.m., work all day and then take night classes -- for 10 years. He's suprised most people don't balance going to school and raising a family while working four jobs -- Palestra caretaker, Penn sprint football assistant coach, West Catholic High School football coach and CYO football coach for programs around Southwest Philadelphia. He's surprised more people don't type a 70-page senior thesis with two fingers on a computer in the back of the basketball locker room. He's surprised more people don't walk in Penn's commencement ceremony with a mop painted red and blue -- a self-deprecating stunt that he knew would get laughs. Graduating from Penn in 2000 turned a run-of-the-mill, country music-loving, football-breathing janitor into a national superstar. "He set the whole United States alive when he did it," says Penn sprint football coach Bill Wagner. "He was an inspiration to anyone who ever wanted to set their goals high." Why, then, don't more Penn employees do the same? Well, Harrell is not like many others. His first writing teacher found that out the hard way when Harrell wrote his very first college essay about his favorite place -- the john. Harrell went on to become an American Civilization major (which no longer exists) and wrote his thesis on Philadelphia street games, doing most of his research from his own vivid childhood memories. He grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and went to West Catholic High School before enrolling in St. Joseph's University -- for a day. "I sat through Algebra, and I had no idea what the professor was talking about," Harrell says. "I wasn't ready for that." Times change, though, and so do people. After his union, Teamsters Local 155, landed him a job at Penn in 1989, Harrell decided it was time to make something more, something better, of his life. Now, there's a plaque dedicated to him within the Palestra's hallowed halls. "Dan Harrell," it reads. "An Authentic Penn Hero." Harrell brushes right by it when he makes his usual rounds. No sense stopping to look when there's so much more ahead. • Jackie Harrell knows the exact day her father stopped drinking -- Feb. 11, 1989. "We don't talk about it though," she says quietly, finishing off her mother's home-cooked meal of meatloaf, corn and potatoes. "He doesn't celebrate it like some people." After getting laid off from his job at GE in the early '80s, a company he had worked for most of his life, Harrell turned to alcohol for support. Every day, he would wake up, head over to George's American Cafe, have some beers, bet on some races and go home to his wife and six daughters. "I had no job, no identity and I was drinking too much," Harrell says. "If you're raised in Southwest Philly, you're gonna drink. Go play ball, go drink beer, that's how it was. But as you're falling down, you're thinking about how to get back up." Harrell went to a couple of AA meetings, but he said that always made him want to drink. He cut himself off because he didn't like the "real asshole" he had become. For the past 14 years, he has kept the same friends and gone to the same places and done the same crazy, spur-of-the-moment stunts like he always has. The only difference: no drinks. "It was just like an operation," says Regina, Dan's wife of 37 years. "The drinking was cut out, but everything else about him stayed the same." • Dan Harrell is not from Southwest Philly; he is Southwest Philly. To fully understand Harrell, you must try to envision his life when he was 10, 11, 12 years old -- those were the best years of his life. On a recent February afternoon now, Harrell is driving around the old neighborhood, laughing and calling his old buddies and remembering story after story. There he goes, past the corner Sunoco station, where he got his first job as a clown when he was 10 years old. He quit after two days of the job in the pouring rain; a wet clown suit is no fun. He keeps driving, past the row house he grew up in, nestled between Mrs. Burke's and Mrs. Foster's old homes. Past where he and his buddies built their own baseball diamond. Past Old St. Barnabas Church, where he went to school from the fourth through eighth grades. Everything is so vivid now. The old gas station the kids used to vandalize; the 10-cent movie theater he lived in on Saturdays; the Irish section of town, the Italian section of town and the street the Polish lived on; the hoagie shop Regina's mother owned and the beer store his father worked at; the Big House bar (now a Vietnamese church) and the corner shop that served the world's greatest milkshake. Then, he gets to the house on 67th Street, the one he raised his family in, the one he just moved from last June. Suddenly, nostalgia is replaced with remorse. "The neighborhood's going through a real transition," Harrell says, pointing to his former house, which now has holes in the windows. "I used to be able to walk down this street and name every person in every house. I feel like crying coming down here." A man can only reminisce so long. Harrell drives through Cobbs Creek Park toward his new duplex in Prospect Park. He has just one more stop before he goes home -- his daughter Colleen's house. Colleen, Harrell's second child, has five daughters of her own, and Harrell has a nickname for all of them (except Tara, the oldest). Gianna is called Murphy, Lindsay is Ollie (because she looks like his father), Alaina is Danny and Gabrielle is Rosie. Upstairs, on the wall, there's a cartoon figure alongside three words: Pop-Pop was here. "They think he's the greatest Pop-Pop in the world," Regina says. "They save lemon pies for him." Before leaving, Harrell pulls three packs of Sweet Tarts out of his pocket and gives it to the three oldest girls. He always brings them junk food. • The Palestra is his. Before, during and after every basketball game, Harrell mops the floor in a Penn Athletics T-shirt tucked into blue shorts, high white socks and gold shoes. "Right now," Harrell says, two hours before the Penn-Princeton clash last month, "I'm the most important man in the building." The gold shoes started simply enough. Harrell needed to paint his shoes for the Mummers Parade on New Year's Day 2002, and all he had were his work shoes. So after the parade, he came to work with his funny-looking, freshly painted gold shoes. It stuck. Now it's his signature, like Jordan's tongue-waggle or Iverson's cornrows. "I'm going to call Reebok," Harrell says, half-jokingly. "They got the Michael Jordan; now they'll get the Dan Harrell." Harrell takes the Palestra very seriously. If you're doing any damage to his gym floor, you better be ready for a fight, verbal or physical. Doesn't matter who you are. John Calipari got a taste of Harrell's venom one day in the early '90s. The current Memphis and former Massachusetts head coach brought his UMass team to Harrell's floor back when the Atlantic 10 tournament was held at the Palestra. Calipari kept walking out to the three-point line and scuffing the floor during the game. Harrell told the referee to tell Calipari to stay off the floor, to which the Minuteman coach demanded that Harrell be thrown out of the building. Harrell's teeth clenched when he heard that. "You'll be outta here before I'll be outta here," he hollered. Calipari shut up. Former NBA superstar Julius Erving took some shots on the Palestra floor once wearing loafers. Wrong move. While everyone else was staring in awe at Dr. J., Harrell walked over and asked politely, "Excuse me, Doctor, all due respect, but you can't shoot on the floor with those shoes." Erving looked at him, flipped his loafers in the air, one at a time, and caught them, one in each hand. How about Yoshi Nakamura, one of the best wrestlers in Penn history? Think he stood a chance? When he was a freshman, Nakamura ran sprints on the floor after it had been cleaned. Harrell had no idea who this hotshot kid was, but he was ready to find out. "There's some debate on who dropped the F-bomb first," Harrell says, laughing. "We were jaw-to-jaw, and it was a 'fuck you' match.'" Nakamura then went over to Frank McNasby, the man in charge of setting up the baskets before every game, and said, "He can't talk to me like that, can he?" "He doesn't give a shit who you are," McNasby responded. "It's his floor." Harrell and Nakamura went on to become the best of friends. • What now for Harrell? What now for this abrasive-yet-affable janitor who everyone wants to shake hands with? What now for the man who snuck into the 1980 Super Bowl disguised as a wounded war veteran? What now for the man who worked his ass off to put six kids through school, while getting a degree of his own? It's been three years since Harrell captured national attention; now he's settled back into his familiar role of relative obscurity. "A lot of people are surprised I'm still a janitor," Harrell says. "I'm getting itchy to move on. I like my job, but it's physical. I'm starting to hurt a little bit. I'm in the last quarter. I want to do what I want to do in the last quarter. And I want to teach." What, then, is putting his dream on hold? Right now, Harrell is enjoying the benefits of Penn. The University, which paid for all of his classes, is also paying most of his youngest daughter Erin's college tuition. Erin is a sophomore at Newman College. Chances are, Harrell says, he'll stay at Penn two more years before going to a graduate school for education. He wants to be a social studies teacher or an athletic administrator or a guidance counselor. Anything that will keep him around kids. "He talks about teaching all the time," Regina says. "He's smart and has a lot more to offer. Why not use it? I think he'd make a good teacher, especially with the rapport that he has with the kids." "But his heart is at the Palestra," Jackie cuts in. "That's where he wants to be." It's a difficult spot. Penn and the Palestra have done so much for him. Could he ever leave? "If there's any way I can combine both," Harrell says, "I'm going to do it." Judging by everything he's already done, he'll probably find a way. Photo by Caroline New
Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.