The first people students might interact with on any given day are the Heilman Dining Center cashiers. Most of these interactions are brief. Some students keep their headphones in, offer their card and walk on. Some might say hello and wish the cashier a good morning.
But some students stop for a moment... moments they often convince themselves they don’t have that morning, or afternoon, or evening. In those moments, cashiers might ask students their name, their major, their stress level or even how their club sports team is doing.
And one of the brightest of these cashier faces is Christine Caton’s.
In retirement, Christine Caton was miserable with boredom, she said, and looking for a place where she could have frequent human interaction while keeping part-time hours. Caton’s daughter, Anna, graduated from UR in 2017. Soon after graduating, Anna told her mom about an opening at the Heilman Dining Center, and Christine has been working there since the start of the 2017-18 school year.
Caton has curly blonde hair that hasn’t lost any vibrancy in her 70s. She wears a pink-lipstick smile all day at the front of the dining hall, greeting everyone with warmth and making efforts to get to know students she sees frequently. Despite only working 20-25 hours a week, she makes an impact.
“It’s so fulfilling," Caton said. “I just love it. It’s even more fun than I thought it would be.”
She doesn’t get bored doing what most would consider a monotonous job, she said. Often, the only things she has to do are swipe a card through a sensor and tap a few buttons on a screen, but Caton loves getting to know students in whatever way she can, she said.
She said her coworkers are like family, too.
“We eat together," she said. "We go to each other’s homes. We just had one that had a baby and she just brought me more pictures.”
Caton grew up in Richmond, but spent 20 years with her husband in Greenville, South Carolina, time she still holds dear, she said. She has four sisters who live in Richmond, too, and she still sees them regularly, keeping family close.
“If it wasn’t for family here — our children and everything — we would move down south,” she said. “I love the South, and especially love Greenville.”
She volunteers with her daughter on the weekends through Caritas, a volunteer organization that helps people in need of support in Virginia. She works with children from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, reading with them and doing arts and crafts.
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While at her post on campus, Caton looks out for students at her post.
Once, a student used the dining hall lounge furniture for a make-shift bed and slept in the middle of the day, she said. Caton may have laughed about him with her coworkers, she said, but she made sure not to bother him or wake him up. She often tells students stressed about exams to give themselves time to eat a good lunch and take a breath.
“I remind them that they got in here because they’re very intelligent,” she said.
Despite only working 20-25 hours a week, she makes an impact. One sophomore, Simon Curry, even said he sees Caton as a grandma away from home.
Curry has gotten to know Caton well since his first year. He even has her phone number and texts her occasionally to check in and catch up with her, Caton said.
“We kind of got close [when] she got the new iPhone, and I said, ‘There's no way you know how to use that,’” Curry said. “And then she said, ‘You know I can use it. Here, I'll show you how. I can put in your number.’”
That conversation happened during was Curry’s first year, and since then Caton has given Curry and his roommates homemade fudge several times. Curry also gave Caton a dozen roses for Valentine’s Day two weeks ago, he said.
“You can’t leave the roommates out,” Caton said about the homemade fudge. “I told him he had to share it with everybody.”
Caton plans on going to one of Curry’s club frisbee games at some point, she said, though she hasn’t been able to with this year’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Caton said she also has a favorite couple on campus: Gabby Kiser and Cole Richard. Kiser and Richard are both seniors now, and they started dating during their first semester, Kiser said -- which means they started studying at UR the same time Caton started working here.
Early on in their sophomore year, Kiser and Richard became friendly with Caton, and it was clear other students knew her well too, Richard said.
Richard went to a Subject to Change Improv show his sophomore year, and the performers asked the audience to suggest a person for them to act out, he said. Someone in the audience shouted back, “Christine from D-hall,” Richard said. It showed that the campus knew and appreciated her, he said.
But of the Kiser-Richard couple, Caton actually got to know Kiser first, Caton said. Caton often complimented Kiser on her glasses or her smile when she walked into the dining hall, and they built a good rapport, Kiser said.
“Every time I came in, she had something nice to say,” she said. “She reminds me a lot of my great-grandpa. I think that that's nice to have on-campus — somebody that when I come in with wet hair, she's like, ‘You shouldn't be walking around with [wet] hair.’
"I think having that kind of presence on campus has been really nice for me.”
Caton said she makes sure she checks in on Richard if Kiser walks in alone.
“Every time I come in, and [Richard] hasn't already come through, she'll be like, ‘Where’s Cole? Is he coming?'" Kiser said. "And every time I say, ‘Yes.'
“And if he's already gone through, then it’s, ‘Cole is just ahead of you, so you wait out there for him.’”
Kiser wrote Caton a letter of appreciation her sophomore year, Kiser said.
“We just genuinely really really like each other,” Caton said regarding Kiser and Richard. “And Gabby is so sweet. She was kind of timid and shy at first, and then we got to talking. The next thing I knew I got a letter.”
Since then, Kiser has made a point to give Caton yearly Christmas cards and candy, Kiser said. Richard had the idea to give Caton a small Ferrero Rocher last year, he said, and it happened to be Caton’s favorite candy. This past November, he said he got her the same candy, this time the size of Caton’s head.
Caton said she had waited until Christmas to eat it, using it as a kitchen centerpiece in the meantime.
“I was so flattered and so appreciative of their love that they would think of me in that way,” Caton said. “It’s phenomenal to think that they have touched my life in that way so much.”
Just through working in the dining hall, Caton has been able to see students progress, find friends, and become more confident, she said. The first few days of each school year, Caton sees students eating alone, one at each table. But soon, they start grouping up and making friends for life, she said.
“They become more gregarious, and they talk more and the personalities just blossom the way it should,” she said.
Caton is just one of many beloved figures in the UR Dining Services team.
“I think the whole student population is incredibly grateful for [dining services employees],” Curry said. “And a good way to think about it is: if you eat at D-Hall every day, once or twice a day for four years, think about how many times you're going to see and have the opportunity to interact with these D-Hall cashiers, or cooks. It's just cool to get to know people.”
Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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