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James Whitehead Jr. celebrates 45 years of achievement as food service manager at GSU

For the average Boston University student, a busy schedule packed with back-to-back classes and extracurricular activities leaves little room to breathe, much less eat. Yet, snuggly between East and West campus, pressed between the trek from a 1:25 p.m. lecture to a 2:30 p.m. discussion, the George Sherman Union Food Hall offers solace. 

GSU food service manager James Whitehead Jr. overlooks it all, everyday, with a humble smile on his face. This October, Whitehead celebrated 45 years of service with BU Dining. 

“When I first came [to the GSU] it was a dungeon,” Whitehead chuckled over the choruses of nearby banter.

GSU Food Service Manager James Whitehead Jr. celebrates 45 years with Boston University dining in October. Whitehead started at BU in the Warren dining hall as a dishwasher in 1978. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAUREL O’KEEFE

He said that despite the GSU’s transformation in decor, the students have the same transformative look on their faces each year. 

“[They realize] there’s nobody there to tell them what to do,” Whitehead said. “They’re on their own.”

Whitehead’s father, a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war, urged his son from the age of 10 to pursue a career in the military. Despite this, Whitehead “rejected” the notion, and instead protested the Vietnam War when it reached the United States stage. 

As the draft began rearing its head in his own neighborhood, Whitehead took control of the odds, enlisting in July of 1975

: “I raised my hand, took an oath and my father loved me again.”

It became clear in conversation with Whitehead that his service in the military has had a profound influence on his life and on his work. He fondly recalls several notable experiences from his time in military intelligence, like crossing paths with the Pope and one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

After service in the military, Whitehead’s career at BU began at the Warren Towers Dining Hall dish sink in 1978. 

“When I came here to BU, I put down that I never had a job in my life and I got hired,” Whitehead laughed. “I lasted three weeks in [the Warren dishroom] and one of the chefs noticed that there was something different about me, so he started teaching me how to cook.”

Whitehead recalls a chaotic time when the dining hall did not have a manager. With his military background, he quickly stepped in. 

“Then they came to me, [and] they said ‘James, we’re going to make you supervisor.’ And I was like, ‘No, you just need somebody to yell at.’” 

A natural-born leader, Whitehead climbed the ladder with ease. In 1990, he stepped through the doors of the GSU’s cash room, prepared to face anything that would come his way.

Each day, the GSU faces a lunch rush that is not for the faint of heart. The cacophony of stampeding feet and never-ending chatter is only amplified from behind the counter, where GSU crew members are attuned to the bombarding beeps of the point-of-sale systems. 

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming as a student manager [of the GSU],” said Claire Hwang, a sophomore in the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “People don’t understand that the people who serve food are workers who do this for a living and it’s actually hard to do it.” 

Accolades are long due not only to these crew members, but to Whitehead as well.

“You watch the [student employees] kick in,” Whitehead elaborates, his unending appreciation clear as day. “These guys back here, the things that they do … the end product looks easy but it’s hard to get there.” 

When talking about his family, Whitehead went on to laud his oldest son, who he said is an “athletically phenomenal kid.” From football to baseball to basketball — Whitehead’s son seems to live up to his father’s praise.

Unfortunately, Whitehead was very rarely given the chance to see his son play in sports games due to the extensive hours of dedication required by the military and subsequently by BU Dining Services.

“I never had Father’s Day here [at home] … we would celebrate Father’s Day the week before,” Whitehead revealed. “Even when my wife and I got married, I had to cut my honeymoon because it was when I did my [military] service.”

Hwang detailed Whitehead’s responsibilities as best she could. 

“He is everywhere all at once… He does all the background work we don’t know about because it takes a lot to manage this place,” Hwang said.

But in the face of challenges, Whitehead perseveres. 

“It’s going to get tough, but at the end of the day, if you work hard at it — you can’t help but win.”

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One Comment

  1. So many Congratulations from Donna Conley (my wife of 37 years) and me. We recall working with James at BU’s Warren Towers 41 years ago when we were students. He was a shining example back then, and we’re happy to congratulate him on this life milestone. Thank you, James!