Serving up a story, one slice at a time

Larry Edwards (center) stands with students (from left) Lauren Diaz, Cami Young, Kahina Holmes, Brigid O'Keefe and Jill Morrissey. Students eating in the Cobeen Hall dining room like Edwards for the atmosphere he creates with rock music, an uplifting demeanor and genuine care while serving pizza.

Walk through Cobeen Hall’s dining room doors and into a bustling swarm of hungry college students. They dart in and out of lines for food, lines for utensils, lines for drinks. Dinner servers slop on the macaroni and cheese — others dish out chicken nuggets and green beans — and the usual pleasantries are exchanged.

Student A says, “Thank you.”

Dinner Server B says, “You’re welcome.”

Swipe in. Get in line. Get food. Sit down. Leave.

The next day — around the same time — your stomach is growling. Even though you’d really like to bypass that wicked dinner rush, the hunger pains that threaten to burst your guts are enough to persuade the fatigued mind.

It’s a rut, but what else is there to do? As you walk in, a heavenly scent of freshly baked pizza wafts your way. Seems like tonight’s best bet.

Somebody yells, “Hey, sister! How was your day?”

You whirl around to try and find the source, but it could be anyone. Time is too precious to search for the voice, especially since that last piece of pepperoni is up for grabs. You make a mad dash to nab it. Damn. Stolen from right under your nose.

Somewhere nearby a radio is blaring “More Than a Feeling.”

“Hey! Don’t worry, man. I’ve got a fresh pie coming right out the oven. I’ll let you get first dibs on this one!”

That’s Larry.

“So, how was your day, my brother?”

That’s what Larry does — he asks questions. While he’s working and students are waiting, he finds the time to engage in a conversation. He’s busy, but he still makes the effort to at least give you the respect of asking how the day went.

“Hey, this pizza is gonna be extra good, trust me.”

“When I hear that old song they used to play.  More than a feeling.”

—–

That was my first encounter with Larry Edwards. He is the tall, bespectacled African-American man of 46 years standing behind the pizza station at Cobeen. The twinkle in his eye is evident even behind glasses.

Larry does more than cook fabulous pizzas. Present at the station is his own radio, which always plays the best songs. Coupled with the tunes, his lighthearted chitchat makes “Larry’s Rock ‘n Roll Pizzeria,” dubbed so by Larry himself, a refuge from the hectic dinner scene.

“Larry has a great enthusiasm,” said Michael Kunkel, a sophomore in the College of Business Administration. “His positive energy livens up the atmosphere and makes eating at Cobeen so much more enjoyable.”

Sitting down at a dining hall table, Larry narrates his story.

“I was born and raised in Milwaukee,” he said. As a child, he lived with his family of seven brothers and three sisters, and as time went on, Larry moved on. “I moved to (Fresno) California for a couple of years with my daughter … but we moved back to Milwaukee.” Throughout the clatter of dishes and students gossiping, his confident yet gentle voice is still audible.  My attention never waned.

I asked how he started working at Marquette. “(I was) referred by another employee. He contacted me while I was living at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.” There was a pause. Not intentional, or awkward, but just a pause. I hesitated and then asked why. “Well, before I was saved by the Lord I was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I can’t blame nobody but myself, ’cause I allowed myself to fall into the world of sin.”

I listened intently, awed by his frankness and display of trust in me. Four minutes ago, I was a stranger. Now, he treated me like a friend he’s always known as he gave me his “confession.”

“I had to find something, or some way, to clean up,” Larry said. “The good Lord told me it was right to live there … and I lived among the homeless. It was a way for me to see where my future was going, and it was nowhere.”

Working at Marquette since 2005, Larry loves how his job affords him the opportunity to be around students in a religious setting.

“It’s a real blessing to share with you guys what I learned,” Larry said. He knows students have already suffered through enough lectures for the day. “If you have a stressful day, I’m always here.” Larry doesn’t want to talk about the Han dynasty of ancient China or the price elasticity of demand. The things he learned are of a social substance. What he learned is to be a compassionate soul.

—–

“Hey, buddy! What’d I tell ya? Hot pizza on the way!”

The radio is still on. Sounds like — John Fogerty?

After waiting patiently with plate in hand, Larry delivers. I didn’t mind the wait. The little chat was amiable, and his jovial personality can be a tad infectious. Now, it’s time to devour that sumptuous slice.

“Have a good day, now! And you better tell me how good that pizza tastes!”

“It ain’t me. It ain’t me. I ain’t no senator’s son.”

—–

I asked Larry what he likes best about Marquette. Taking a second to contemplate, his face reveals he’s made a choice.

“To be able to get to know students, and how you guys enjoy Marquette. It’s not only a job … we all have our bad days, and I do what I can to encourage other people,” he said.

It couldn’t have always been this way, though. He relented and admitted to having a bit of shyness and apprehension at the beginning. He’s only human.

“When I got this job, I was a little scared. (TV) portrayed college students as rich and bragging, and that was exactly what I was expecting,” Larry said.

What he experienced was completely different.

“It was a whole different story. Some are willing to go the extra mile. They’re down to Earth. I haven’t ran across any college brat, where I say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re living off your daddy’s money,’” he said.

Larry doesn’t assume there is a good-natured human inside every student — he knows.  His “customers” aren’t just students, they’re his companions. He is able to see the good in those he helps. “Got to love God first. As long as I give God the glory and never take anything for myself, I know my day will be good.”

“Larry is always in a great mood,” said Mike Aleshire, a sophomore in the College of Business Administration. “He has something nice to say each time I talk to him.”

Larry is adamant about providing a fun and enjoyable setting.

“To connect with the students, I take it as a personal interest,” Larry said.  “If you go to a restaurant and the waiter is just there taking your order, and not saying ‘Hi,’ why would you want to go there? You have to do things decent. Y’all don’t want to run into an employee with a bad attitude. That’s why, when you come my way, you never have to deal with that. I set up an atmosphere.”

—–

The dinner rush is over, and it’s time to head for the door. Instead of simply walking out, I take Larry up on his offer to give him feedback on the pizza and tell him how good it was.

“Wow, thanks, man! You know, I really appreciate that,” Larry said. “Hey, I’m always here. You have a problem, come see me, buddy.”

Dinner is traditionally a time when family and friends can sit and reflect on the day together while sharing a meal. Some regard the ability to share food as the indication of a real friendship. We do no justice to the custom of dinner as we complacently participate in our daily dinner rush.

Larry tries to slow it down.

Not in the sense of physically working slower, because not even a proverbial hummingbird could catch Larry at work. He “brings dinner back.” Larry possesses a charisma and charm that can impart itself in the briefest of encounters. He does his best to spread his good spirit and his gratitude for all those he calls friends.

As I’m strolling out, the booming radio in the background is playing a different tune.

“Celebrate good times, come on! It’s a celebration.”