The air inside Ordal Dining Hall is filled with a mixture of different smells ranging from meatloaf to chicken teriyaki stir-fry. The clock is just about to hit 5:02 p.m. and I’m working my way through the masses of students whirling around the tables.
As I walk towards the western corner of the cafeteria, I pass the football-table and the scent of food suddenly gets a touch-up of masculine fragrances and sweat. There, sitting alone on a table facing the windows, I see him. He is wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt and a dark baseball cap, waiting patiently.
When I approach him, his eyes immediately light up behind the lenses of his steel-rimmed glasses. The smile is as genuine as always, and the handshake is surprisingly firm.
To most, he’s known as just Bill – with the endless stream of jokes. Every single day, he starts his shift off with sharing a new joke with whoever has time to listen. The jokes never repeat themselves, and his enthusiasm always makes it worth the time.
“If you’re having a bad day, and he comes over to your table to tell a joke, you can’t help it but to feel better when you see how excited he gets,” says freshman Abby Schulte.
“I just love how he shares his jokes with everyone, without singling out anyone,” says freshman Jennifer Lang. “He doesn’t care whether it’s a white girl or a black guy, he just wants everyone to hear his jokes.”
Bill works as a utility worker. He does anything and everything he is asked to do, whether it’s helping with the dishes or picking up the children from the daycare on Campus.
One of his colleagues for many years, Jane Flint, describes him as a team player, a gentleman and “he’s a guy who always looks out for others,” she says.
His full name is Bill William Ellsworth Rooker. Ellsworth, like the air force base. “I have no idea where it came from. My mom just liked it I guess,” he says.
As a Sioux Falls native, he took his first breaths of air in 1957, at the former Sioux Valley Hospital, now known as the Sanford Hospital.
Last year Bill celebrated his 20th year at Augustana. “I got a streaming player for TV, the longer you stay, the better the prizes are,” says Bill who is planning on staying for as long as he can still make a contribution.
Now, let’s go back to the jokes for a minute. As I said, he has a new one every single day, and today is no different. “Why was the baby strawberry crying?” he asks, with his face full of expectation. I’m unable to compose a decent answer, so I ask him to tell me. “Mom and dad were in a jam.”
“At first it started off with Laffy Taffy, the candy. There would be two jokes in every wrapper,” he says. “Then I was given a joke book for my birthday, but it kind of ran itself out, or all the good ones were taken.”
“Now I got some brand new ones, online.” I asked him how he was able to keep track of the ones he had already said, and he quickly responds, “I just mark whichever I’ve used.”
When he’s not working he likes to watch TV and movies, or solve word puzzles. Right now he’s working on some big ones with more than 200 words. “It’s probably going to take all summer to get it done,” he says.
He’s had a lifelong passion for movies, and likes to use Netflix on his computer, especially when he is sitting around and there’s not much on TV, other than Dancing with the stars and the Voice. Since his childhood he’s enjoyed watching the classic Western’s, like Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke with James Arness.
What not everybody knows is that besides telling jokes, Bill also sells jewelry and hairbands. This week he’s even having a special Mother’s Day sale. The sales, however, have not gone as well as he’d been hoping for.
He says that part of the reason is because he doesn’t use social media for advertising like some do. Instead, he gives offers to the people he meets around on campus. “I tell certain people, and hopefully I’ll get it out,” he says.
Now that summer is right around the corner, Bill explains that while many of the students leave town to visit their families, he will keep on working. Even if the days look different without all the students around, there will be camps and other people who are coming in to eat.
That means he won’t have the same split shifts like he usually does.
“It’s like being a doctor, you have to be ready when they call,” he says. “But they will usually tell you ahead in time.”
“Bill is ‘Mister Consistent’ and he always comes in with a good attitude, always full of jokes,” says Bill’s supervisor, Glen Elder.
Some students may feel they see Bill working day and night, and they are right. He starts the day at 10 a.m., before he leaves again at 2 p.m., and then comes back for his second shift from 5:30 to 8 p.m. – every day except Saturday.
He doesn’t mind working long days. ”It helps. It makes it worth getting up in the morning,” he says.
For some students, talking to Bill every morning has become a part of their daily routine. However, in January this year, Bill was suddenly gone, “The atmosphere in the cafeteria just wasn’t quite the same without his jokes,” says junior Karen Joesdendal.
A couple of days later there were a picture of Bill in the dining hall, saying he had been in a car accident.
He had gotten struck by a car as he was crossing Duluth Avenue on 33rd Street on his way to the gas station to pick up some drinks, like he always does.
“I was in the middle of the street,” he says. “Then I look to the left and I saw lights coming at me. I heard a ‘thunk’ and next thing I’m laying on the ground.”
“There was a little bit of bleeding in my head, and they did a couple of CT scans, and I was in the intensive care,” he says. “My eyes were all puffed up, and I still go to physical therapy for my hand.”
He says that he is close to fully recovered, but his hand may never get back to a hundred percent. It doesn’t affect him much at work, unless he has to put a lot of weight on it.
However, his smile, enthusiasm and ability to spread joy around him is as good as ever, and the only thing reminding him of what happened is the one-inch scar above his right eye.
The overwhelming conglomeration of smells that filled the air earlier has now vanished, and the only things left at the football-table next to us is a pond of ketchup and a bent fork.
I ask Bill what he would wish for if he could get one wish fulfilled. His answer is simple.
“I’m happy with the way things are.”
Written by Maria Lavelle May 14th 2015