Garry Gale, door checker at Risley Dining Hall, chats with members of the campus community as he rings their lunches up at lunch time.

Door checker’s ‘friendly face’ makes Risley Dining feel like home

Garry Gale has no idea how he remembers so many names.

“I don’t know, and I’m not trying to figure it out,” he said. It’s his superpower, and he puts it to good use as the door checker at Risley Dining Hall.

When Nicola Noble, operations manager for Cornell Dining, first saw Gale at work, his easy banter with students blew her away.

“He will say, ‘Hey, Samantha, hey, Bri, how was piano? How was soccer? So it wasn’t just that he knew the names. He knew what they were doing,” she said. “And I thought, is this a one off? No, he was consistent.”

Gale has worked for Cornell Dining for 19 years, first as a cook at several dining halls around campus before becoming a door checker at Risley about six years ago.

Gale keeps notes and cards he’s received from students taped to the front desk at Risley.

In 2020 Chinese students told him they experienced harassment off-campus from people who blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was just thinking, ‘Well, what can I do,’” he said.

He’d always had an interest in learning another language, and with his exceptional memory, he thought he’d give learning Mandarin a try – enough to welcome Chinese students and give them a little bit of support.

“I thought that would be a good way to let them know, ‘Hey, I'm here with you,’” he said.

Gale took lessons in Fall 2021 in Mandarin through the Community Learning and Service Partnership (CLASP), a program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that matches Cornell employees who are interested in pursuing self-selected learning goals with students who can help them reach those goals.

He can now hold about a 1.5-minute conversation in Mandarin, he said.

Students in the dining halls noticed his Mandarin-phrase-a-day calendar and his efforts to try out what he was learning. They helped him practice his pronunciation and intonation.

“I remember being impressed because Chinese is so much harder to learn as a language than others,” said Anna Lu ’24, an urban planning major in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Lu is from Portland, Oregon, and speaks Chinese at home with her family.

“For Garry to do that – and it’s for all of us – that was really touching,” she said. “And that kind of encapsulates what Garry is like as an employee and as a person.”

Gale won the Culture of Belonging Award at the President’s Awards for Employee Excellence in 2023 for creating and supporting an inclusive, welcoming and equitable workplace environment.

He said the award was a big surprise. Empathy just comes naturally to him. For many students he meets, this is their first time away from home.

Gale greets a customer during lunch at Risley Dining.

“I have a 14-year-old grandson, and in four years he may go to college,” Gale said. “That will be his first time away from home. … I would hope there would be someone there if he was getting to be homesick or was trying to find his way as a young adult to be a friendly face, to be someone that may assist him or give guidance or answer questions he may have. Or just to say hello and make him feel welcome.”

Noble said the dining hall staff members have a greater responsibility than simply serving food.

“We’re creating a safe space where students can lay their burdens down, sit with their friends, eat and laugh and feel free,” she said. “And whatever happened in that test, or that exam room or just whatever, they don’t think about it. And I want that space to be warm. Garry gives the initial at-the-door feeling that tells you it’s safe here.”

No one can quite replace Gale, though.

“So every now and then Garry has to take a day off,” Noble said. “And I will jump in or someone has to jump in and cover the door. And I promise you – no joke – as I’m sitting there, as his students come around and they see it’s not Garry, they will go into a whole panic like, ‘Is he OK?’”

Gale keeps cards from former students taped to his desk at Risley. Lu said she has seen him reading them during downtime at the front desk.

“I have some friends that have already graduated, and the one staff member that all of them ask about is Garry,” Lu said.

“It really makes an impression,” she said. “Garry’s not putting on a show or trying to act a certain way. That’s just how he is. It comes across really genuine.”

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Lindsey Knewstub