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Mother and daughter reflect on long, full careers at Emory
Kechia Williams and Dollie Durden

Dollie Durden has worked for 45 years as a custodian in Campus Services. Her daughter, Kechia Williams (left), has worked in Campus Services for 25 years. Their work ethic is unrivaled, as is their love of Emory.

— Emory photo/video

It would be hard to find two more charming and sharp-eyed chroniclers of how Emory has changed through the years. And the unique sensibility of this mother-daughter team is not just a function of the long period of service they share: 70 years. It is also indicative of a deep investment in Emory as a community, not merely a place to work.

Dollie Durden joined Campus Services as a custodian 45 years ago, and her daughter Kechia Williams did so 25 years ago. Before coming on as an employee, Williams was a ubiquitous presence on campus during her childhood, coming to work often with her mother.

Emory was not the first professional position for either woman — Durden had worked at Davis Brothers Cafeteria, a box factory and a nursing home; Williams’ first role was at a nursing home —  but the culture they found here quickly became part of their DNA.

The first member of their family to be employed at Emory was Durden’s mother, who worked for three years at the Woodruff Residential Center. Curiosity is what first brought Durden to Emory. Long before the Cliff shuttle system, there was the lone Grady shuttle, ferrying doctors and other health care staff back and forth between the hospital and the Atlanta campus. Interested in what Emory might be all about, Durden boarded the shuttle one day bound for Emory and liked what she saw, though she quickly adds, “It wasn’t like it is today.”

There were the trailers and barracks, for one thing. On the corner of Clifton and North Decatur roads, where the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts sits in splendor today, there once was a homely barracks whose residents were dedicated to the arts, and that is where Durden first worked.

Service in every sector of campus

In her time here, Durden has made the rounds — working in every building on the Quad, at the Briarcliff campus and at Lullwater House. She also was assigned to President Jimmy Carter when he and a small staff occupied the tenth floor of the Woodruff Library, before The Carter Center was constructed.

Plain on the outside, the barracks and trailers were a challenge on the inside. Some of them were multistoried and, until the early 1990s, did not have elevators. That meant, says Williams, “the custodial staff would have to manage the trash going upstairs and down.” Clever employees, including Durden, found a way around all that lugging. When she worked in the Turman and Alabama residence halls, before elevators were added, “We would throw the bags of trash out the window and then dispose of it when we got outside,” says Durden.

Durden’s favorite building was the Michael C. Carlos Museum, where she worked for 16 years, loving every minute of her time there — not least because of the view she had on Commencement every year. Supervisors in Campus Services occasionally would advise staff, “No one is married to a building,” as an indication that changing crews was part of the plan.

Williams has a slightly different take on why her mother was moved around often, saying, “It is because my mom has been such a good worker. She is never out, always on time and has served 45 years. That is dedication.” Though Durden accepted every assignment cheerfully, it was a bit hard to be moved, she says, “because I always considered the people in whatever building I was working as family.”

Just some of Emory’s benefits

And what do family members do for one another? Cook. While at the Carlos, Durden started a Thanksgiving tradition that continued for about nine years. In addition to Williams, Durden has three sons. Durden, Williams and one of her sons would create an annual Thanksgiving feast, highlights of which were Durden’s collard greens (Williams calls them “the best ever”), along with sweet potato pie and other delights. As happens when good food is generously shared, the event grew year to year with “everyone looking forward to Miss Dollie’s Thanksgiving,” says Williams.

At the School of Medicine, where both Williams and Durden currently work, Durden is a hands-down favorite of the students, who this year gave her a generous birthday party. Says Williams, “As I work, I can hear them calling ‘Miss Dollie’ all the way down the hallway.” The respect and affection is mutual, says Durden. “I don’t know their names, but I know them, and they know me.”

Durden is the adventurous one. Not only did she hop that long-ago shuttle and, as a result, change her employer, she also embraces the zeitgeist of whatever building she is working in. At the Carlos, “she took to the mummies,” says Williams, shaking her head in wonder at the thought. Durden had no qualms about working in a barrack known as Fishburne where experiments took place with mice. Not so for Williams, who confesses to having been skittish about entering. And at the School of Medicine, Durden unhesitatingly makes her way into the morgue when more paper towels and soap are needed.

Asked whether she ever thought of leaving Emory, Durden responds, “I have had my moments, but you learn things as you go.” In one rare instance in which she had an issue with a coworker, Durden recalls her supervisor asking her to find ways to “work smarter, not harder,” and she has followed that advice, even though on the day she received it she felt close to tears.  

Durden prizes Emory’s health care, which became especially crucial in 2020 when she contracted COVID-19 and spent a week in Emory University Hospital with pneumonia and blood clots in her lungs. “The doctors and nurses were very helpful in getting me through it,” Durden recalls. Williams is convinced that her mother got especially attentive care, noting: “They considered her one of us because she works at the School of Medicine.”

Having a great role model and becoming one

For Williams, on each visit to campus as a little girl, starting around the age of six, she was taken with the gorgeous flowers and especially intrigued by the large elephant ears. Although she swears that she is “not a plant person,” the landscaping made a big impression, in part because she realized its power to “draw people to Emory.”

How’s this for the practices of a bygone era? According to Williams, “My mother’s supervisors catered to me and my brother, debating who would have the chance to babysit us while she worked.” A supervisor they knew as “Miss Lily” took the prize in their eyes because she always took them to McDonald’s. “I was always asking when it would be lunchtime,” laughs Williams, “and going there as often as we did with Miss Lily, my brother and I were in heaven.” Knowing, even when she was young, that such gestures were unusual, Williams attributes the rule bending to “the love that her supervisors had for my mom.”

Asked if she ever thought she would join her mother working at Emory, Williams didn’t miss a beat: “No, it never crossed my mind that I would work here.”

Her onboarding was unusual in that she was not interviewed. “The supervisor told me what building I would be in, and I started that same day. There is little doubt in my mind that I was hired on the strength of my mom’s reputation,” says Williams.

Her first assignment was the Callaway Memorial Center, where she worked for 22 years, until joining the recycling program. The mother of five children, Williams worked the night shift for half that time because her children were young and she wanted to be at home with them during the day. Working from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and being a mother during the day was tough; as she says, “I don’t want to go back on that shift ever again.”

When the Ebola patients came to Emory University Hospital in 2014, Williams watched their arrival from the fifth floor of Callaway. “I was in awe. It was a little scary at the time, but I was not surprised given Emory’s reputation as a health care and research institution,” Williams says. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton lectured at Callaway, which she describes as “so exciting to see.” She got to meet actor Laurence Fishburne when Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) was filmed at White Hall.

Leaving behind dusting and vacuuming to join the recycling team suited Williams, who admires the values that undergird Emory’s sustainability and recycling programs. She wishes that community members would take a little more time to put the right elements in the right bins — “given how often mistakes occur,” she says.

How does it end?

The question of who will follow whom in retirement will surprise readers. In two to five years, Williams anticipates joining the trucking company that her daughter recently established. Asked what the company delivers, she smilingly said, “From dirt to diapers. Whatever you need.” Of her role, Williams says, “I can be the dispatcher, do contracts, whatever she needs. I am looking forward to doing that. My daughter just bought her second truck. Her business is going to grow into something bigger.”

Durden, notwithstanding the 45 years under her belt, comes to the retirement question more reluctantly. Williams, by the way, is not convinced that her mother’s start date is accurate and thinks her service might be edging closer to 50 years.

Asked what gives her the most pride when she thinks back on her career, Durden answers, “Earning the respect of my customers in all the locations where I have worked, especially my students.” Regarding the eventual retirement party when Durden does step away from her duties, Williams says, “It will be big. It should be big.”

Durden says that she will “work one more year.” However, as Williams warns, she has been saying that for “the longest time.”

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