By Cecilia Engbert
CatholicU, Spring 2023
Seemingly every member of The Catholic University of America family has come to know Ms. Willie Joyner during her nearly half century of service to the University. She is a parent away from home and a warm embrace on a cold day with a side of Chick-fil-A. She’s a permanent fixture in more ways than one now that the institution has honored its own institution and cemented her legacy.
Willie Joyner, customer service ambassador at the University, had just sat down for her afternoon break in the food court this winter when a student walking by caught sight of her and called out a greeting.
“Ms. Willie, I haven’t seen you in so long!”
Joyner was quick to stand for a hug and as the student walked away, promising to catch up soon, Joyner called after him, “Just text me!”
For almost 50 years, students at Catholic University have found an accessible friend and confidant in Joyner, who still works in the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center food court greeting students, cleaning tables, and stocking beverages and condiments. Joyner said the students — or “babies” as she calls them — don’t just need someone to talk to them, they need people to show them they are appreciated and cared for. Her actions speak for her, she said.
Several University alumni demonstrated just how much Joyner’s friendship impacted their University experience when they donated money to name the east dining room of the new Garvey Hall in honor of their “Ms. Willie.”
Ed Gillespie, B.A. 1983, a former counselor to a president of the United States, led the charge in naming the dining room after Joyner.
“I am but one in a 49-year-long parade of students, many of us her babies, who have benefited from Miss Willie’s care and feeding. But as she will tell you, I was her first baby,” Gillespie said at the dedication of Garvey Hall on Dec. 5, 2022 when he announced the dining hall had been named for his friend.
Garvey Hall is the latest addition to campus, a 35,000-square-foot dining facility that is also the new home of the Center for Academic and Career Success, formerly located in McMahon Hall.
Many fellow graduates joined Gillespie in the naming project. “These alumni put their money where their mouth is and this institution of faith is practicing what it preaches,” Gillespie said.
Mary Jo Parrino, B.A. 1983, who donated toward the naming of the Ms. Willie Joyner Dining Room, said it is a fitting way to act in the spirit of Joyner.
“Ms. Willie gives to us a tangible example of a life of service, a life guided by unfailing kindness to all those she meets along the way,” said Parrino.
Parrino said Joyner embodies the ethos of the University: “Love of neighbor and a recognition of the dignity of all persons.”
As Catholic University rejoiced in the celebration of Joyner, so did the nation. Miss Willie was celebrated on the front page of The Washington Post Metro section, while local news and the national Fox News Sunday chronicled Joyner’s service to the campus. Co-workers called her an “icon,” while current students said she was “the best,” and “very embodiment of joy” in media interviews.
So, how did a humble woman who has spent most of her life in Washington, D.C., capture the hearts of generations of Catholic University students and, now, the nation? By focusing on what’s holy.
While in college in the big city, Gillespie remembers being homesick for his family back in rural south New Jersey. Phone calls were limited back then and he couldn’t just text his loved ones when he felt lonely. But Joyner helped him get through.
“Willie just kind of doted on me,” Gillespie said. “When I would have problems. I would talk to her and she would make me feel better, give me advice.”
Joyner’s life of faith, exemplary work ethic, and joyful service has been a model for countless University students over the past 49 years, many of whom still stay in touch with her.
Joyner came to Catholic University in 1974. She had previously worked as a line server at American University and she enjoyed the promotion to cashier at Catholic University. Over the years, she has moved from building to building and watched as the University evolved in many ways.
She watched the Pryz take over the old football field. Her favorite space to eat lunch, atop a hill along Michigan Avenue, is now the site of construction for a new home for the Conway School of Nursing. She remembers hanging out with students in “the Rat” (or Rathskellar) — the former University student lounge that closed in 2004.
While the University has changed during her time of service, Joyner remains the same source of comfort and refuge that students have grown to depend upon. From cashier, Joyner eventually moved on to being a “meeter and greeter,” the job she does now.
One thing has remained through her years, as the campus has grown and changed.
“I meet and greet and get my hugs,” she said. “That’s the good part of my day.”
Every day, Joyner says she asks God for wisdom and knowledge so she can be there for the students who need her. She finds motivation in Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” as well as Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
Every day brings something different for Joyner as she meets new students and greets old ones. One of her favorite things is when students take their BeReal photos (a photo sharing app to share images once a day with friends) with her. She smiles big and shows her real self. “It lets me know they see the real me. I cannot fake it to make it,” Joyner said.
Joyner said when students have things they don’t want to tell their parents or aren’t sure how to tell them, she helps find a way.
“We talk, we hug, we pray,” she said. “If it’s really important, I’ve got to take time from my job to talk with them. I make sure that we serve the babies right. We need to show them love. We need to show that we appreciate them and care about them. They need to be shown, not just talked to.”
Joyner said she is quick to notice when students are lonely and she takes special care to befriend them. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing enough for my babies, if I’m talking to them enough,” she said.
It’s clear Joyner’s doubts are unfounded.
Brian J. Abdo, B.A. 1985, remembers meeting Joyner on his second day at the University in 1981.
“She immediately nicknamed me B.J.,” Abdo said. “We became friends and sometimes held up the line as we talked about our families and friends. I found her a very spiritual person, a person whose positive attitude was contagious, and her ability to show true empathy with me as well as so many other students was truly a gift.”
Like pretty much every student since the turn of the 21st century, Aiden Moriarty, B.A. 2019, said he encountered Ms. Willie in the Pryzbyla Center his freshman year. “She was just so kind to us all, every day,” he said.
When Aiden Moriarty found out his dad, Michael Moriarty, B.A. 1983, knew Ms. Willie 35 years before, he showed her a picture of his dad as a student.
“She remembered exactly who he was and was delighted to hear how he was doing,” he said.
Joyner was an essential part of the day for Michael Moriarty and his friends back in their freshman year of 1979.
“She was the first person you’d meet, punching our meal cards and keeping our nonstop nonsense to a minimum,” said Michael Moriarty. “She was up to the challenge, and everybody thought the world of her.”
Joyner knows how to keep students in line but she is also a beacon of much-needed joy to busy, tired students trying to find some food and a place to relax.
“We were probably less rebellious and difficult because Willie could do her job well and be the friendly welcoming face of CUA’s food service,” said Michael Moriarty. “To be honest, the positive memories are of her, because food wasn’t very good back then.”
Shortly after the new dining hall opened in December, Abdo and his wife Mary Molloy, B.A. 1985, returned to the University to reunite with Joyner after hearing of the room dedicated to her.
“I had thought that Ms. Willie had retired years ago and the opportunity to spend some time with her was precious,” said Abdo. “We exchanged cell numbers and have been texting and sending pictures of our families since then.”
He was overjoyed to hear of the honor shown to Joyner.
“The insight to go beyond donors and, if you will, dedicate the wing to someone in the trenches is truly an inspiration,” said Abdo. “Her story needs to be repeated over and over again, especially to the students who are privileged to go to CUA. I hope that they will learn that some of life’s best lessons don’t come from a book.”
Since graduating, Aiden and Michael Moriarty both have made sure to see Joyner when they visit campus.
“Multiple generations have built relationships with Willie,” Michael Moriarty said. “That’s not a long time on a job, that’s a legacy!”
Gillespie also has stayed in touch with Joyner over the years and he is proud of the University for honoring the woman who means so much to him and many other graduates and students.
“It’s nice to see someone of Willie’s caliber as a person get that kind of recognition that is usually reserved for former university presidents or leaders of the Church or big donors,” said Gillespie. “I’m just very proud of the school right now. I love her and I’m so happy for her. And the joy that this has brought her has brought me 100-fold the same joy.”