Sodexo employee John Holley passed away on Sept. 24. Holley came to Northwestern three years ago from Indian Hills Community College Culinary Arts Program, after being recruited by his former teacher, Head Chef Benjamin Whitmore. Holley had a history of seizures, and suffered a fatal one last week.
Holley began working at NW in the fall of 2012. When he first started, he was placed at the international food station in the caf. This transition from school to work was difficult for him at first.
“It was hard for him because a lot of these students were his same age,” co-worker Cindy Hickman said. “He was kind of quiet and intimidated, but he got to where he could really interact, especially with the students who worked here.”
One of the students who had the opportunity to work with Holley was Student Manager Regina Steffen.
“There was never a day that John seemed angry, and if things weren’t going as he planned, he was still able to make the best of it,” Steffen said. “He lightened up our days and made a job that is often stressful a joyous thing.”
Student athletes knew Holley from their Saturday morning pre-game meals. Many of them would yell, “Hey Chef John!” across the parking lot whenever co-worker Stacy Roberson and Holley were on break.
“That made John feel good,” Roberson said. “He knew that recognition meant that he had affected somebody to acknowledge who he was.”
Athletes and caf workers were not the only students who developed a relationship with Holley. Anthony “Society” Wubben met Holley at the international food station. Holley developed a joking relationship with several men from the Heemstra wings of Colenbrander Hall beginning in the fall of 2013.
“John was able to joke around with us while providing a welcoming environment to the cafeteria,” Wubben said.
General Manager of Campus Dining Nedrick Price hadn’t realized the impact that Holley had on this campus until students approached him this past week to express their condolences.
“You get a bigger picture of how many lives he did touch,” Price said.
From the start of his time here, Holley made an effort to go out of his way to make others happy, through actions such as offering co-worker rides or even just friendly smiles.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Roberson said. “You know, people just say that, but John literally always had a smile on his face no matter how bad it got back there.”
Holley was known for his shining personality and his famous saying, “Don’t worry about it.”
“Everyone agreed that was something John said,” Roberson said. “I believe that’s one of the things that has helped this kitchen the last few days. That’s just the way he lived life.”
Along with remembering that saying, caf workers won’t forget Holley shuffling his feet whenever he walked. Holley’s co-workers would often poke fun at him for this.
“I’d get after him all the time,” Hickman said. “‘Pick up your feet, John. Pick up your feet,’ and he would reply, ‘Don’t worry about it, Miss Cindy.’”
Holley expressed his love for working at NW to his family back home. His mother told Price that he would brag about how much fun he had at work and how great it was to work with people like Roberson and Whitmore.
“Even on the bad days, he loved his job,” Hickman said.
Holley especially enjoyed working when there was a big catering event to prepare for. He would help everyone remain calm while things were intense in the kitchen.
No matter what he was asked to do, he would complete the task with excitement even when things became chaotic.
“He never did get upset, things just didn’t bother him that much,” Roberson said.
Co-worker Luis Sanchez lived with Holley off-and-on and was able to get to know him outside the kitchen.
Sanchez witnessed Holley maintain a close relationship with his parents despite living several hours away.
“Every night after work, he would get home and call his mom,” Sanchez said.
Even though he was far away from his home of Libertyville, he was still able to develop family-like relationships with those he worked with on a daily basis.
“He had that very close relationship with his mom and his family, but I think NW and Sodexo became his family,” Roberson said.
Holley’s last day was filled with joking around with the staff as they prepared for the next morning. Roberson, Sanchez and Miss Cindy all remember how great that day was.
As it neared the end of the night, Sanchez and Holley decided it was time to pack up and go home. It ended just like any other day.
“He said, ‘Tomorrow is another day, let’s go,’ and we left,” Sanchez said. “In the parking lot, he said, ‘Okay, goodnight. See you tomorrow.’ And I didn’t see him tomorrow.”
Holley’s presence will be dearly missed in the Caf and around campus. He left an impact on co-workers, students, faculty and staff over the last three years that will not quickly fade.