Most mornings, Larry Stevens swipes students into breakfast with a special name for each of them.
“Cat-Cat’s in the house.”
“My main man, my pots and pans.”
The possibilities are endless.
Towering over the counter at an unmistakable 6’5”, he’s the first friendly face seen before an 8 a.m. class and certainly the most eminent. Of course, we know him more intimately as “Big Larry” — the cultural epitome of Eickhoff Hall and, in some ways, the entire College administration.
“I walk through campus and get about a hundred hellos,” Stevens said. “I bet you I’m more well-known than the president. Everyone knows me! They remember ‘Big Larry.’”
And he’s right. The icon that “Big Larry” has seamlessly created for himself over a 21-year career at the College is as large as his posture: fake Twitter accounts, enthusiastic nods in Buzzfeed articles and, needless to say, the admiration of his students. He serves as the appetizer before all morning meals, an emotional pick-me-up that nullifies any complaints about the food.
But there’s still plenty of room for guesswork. “Big Larry,” though the figurehead of Eickhoff, has an image that overshadows Larry Stevens, the man outside the College who students only meet halfway.
Born in 1950, Stevens was the oldest of four brothers and sisters. He grew up in South Trenton amid the postwar boom, seeing the city flourish while he attended Trenton Central High School. He would go on to witness national desegregation and the era of the Kennedys: “personal idols” of his. But it wasn’t until 1973 when Stevens moved to Ewing, working and raising two sons, and it wasn’t until 1992 when he arrived at the College.
“At the time, my brother-in-law worked here, and he helped give me the opportunity to join in,” Stevens said.
Since then, he has served more than 20 graduating classes of students, each group of seniors saying “goodbye” and each wave of freshmen learning his legacy.
“I especially like working with the freshmen,” Stevens said. “They’ve never been away from home before, and that’s a big step. You go away, and nobody’s telling you to go to class, no mommy and daddy telling you to get up. But it’s nice to have someone taking care of you, and that’s what I try to do.”
From 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Stevens greets students on good days and bad. No matter what time they walk through the doors, he’s bursting with unbridled energy — a dance here, a joke there — something to transfer his own enthusiasm into a smile on each of likely hundreds of faces. That said, the opposite is just as true.
“You guys, you make me feel young,” he said beaming. “The students here are like my own children. I’m 62, but coming in to work every day, you meet so many new people that it gives me a charge. You give me my youth.”
Big Larry’s day-to-day optimism is an anomaly among his crowd, though. For a maroon-collar worker to hold as much status as the College’s own mascot, it’s indicative of his relationship with the student body. He said that he keeps in contact with many of his former students, and even went to a basketball game with one not too long ago. When he said “they remember Big Larry,” he also meant they reconnect.
“I try to get to know everyone’s names, like a bank teller or a bartender,” Stevens said. “It makes them feel special. And when a kid can look at me and say ‘you made my day,’ that makes me feel good.”
By extension, he knows more tightly-knit information about his students than perhaps their own parents.
“They tell me personal stuff. I’m like the Eickhoff social worker,” he said.
Few cafeteria workers garner such attention. But the matter of recognition is one more of respect, a reciprocated courtesy shared between Stevens and everyone he meets. No message was stressed more powerfully to me than a few of his own choice words: “Without respect, you ain’t got nothin’.” If this boils down to Steven’s life philosophy, then he certainly has it all.
Today, Stevens continues to live in Ewing close to the College. He prides himself on his family, his career and his love of the Philadelphia Eagles. He sees his seven grandchildren as often as possible, but the geographical distance between them can be difficult. In their absence, he considers his students and his campus “a home away from home.”
But Stevens, like all employees, is looking toward the future.
“I want to be right here, really,” he said. “But I’ll tell you: in about two, maybe three years, I’m planning on retiring. Then there’ll be no more ‘Big Larry.’” At the very least, he promised to retire at the same time I graduate — “so we can go out together.”
A campus life without “Big Larry” is slowly approaching down the road. But it’s impossible to assume his absence at the counter means the end of his legacy. Larry Stevens is a man, but Big Larry is a symbol. He has transcended beyond standards and into an inexorable feature of the College. Even the nickname, whose origins are amusingly unknown, echoes year after year across campus, as common and established as if it were a building dedicated in his name.
“I don’t remember where the name came from, it’s almost like Big’s my first name and Larry’s my last,” he said. “But I like it. It’s nice to know you’re loved by someone else besides your family. Students like me, know nothing about me, but still have respect for me. And that’s a gift.”
I wouldn’t make the trip to an early breakfast without the pretext that “Big Larry” would be there to welcome me. Nor can I imagine the atmosphere of Eickhoff without seeing the 62-year-old tease students and crack jokes like he was 30. When the time does come, though, someone will have to pick up the torch. Someone will need to bridge the generational gap between students and staff, remember their names, high-five their successes and lift up their woes. That’s Larry for you, and those are some big shoes to fill.