1958 Matriculant Cleans Barracks, Befriends Cadets
It’s not often that one finds an 83-year-old still working, much less working at a physical job like cleaning up in barracks. But Barney Odend’hal ’58 has already played a lot of golf, and he doesn’t want to waste time with what he calls the “boob tube.”
“I come to work,” said Odend’hal, who’s been a custodian in barracks for the past nine years. “People cannot understand how I do it being an old man, and I work circles around them.”
Odend’hal has both an unusual last name and an unusual life story. The family name is Germanic in origin, he shared, and it was originally spelled Odendendhall. “So somebody along the line had the good sense,” he explained, to condense it and add an apostrophe in place of the missing letters.
Odend’hal grew up in Norfolk and attended Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, for high school. He then matriculated at VMI, but wound up leaving after two years to enlist in the Marine Corps. In the late 1950s, he served two years on the USS Roanoke, a Worcester-class light cruiser.
In the years that followed, Odend’hal married and became a father. He also worked installing telephone lines, but his life was marred by alcoholism, an obstacle he said he overcame when he quit drinking after a religious conversion experience in 1972.
Later in life, after retirement and having been widowed, Odend’hal found himself at loose ends. That’s when he came to VMI, this time as an employee. Over the years, with his kind manner and quick smile, he’s befriended hundreds of cadets.
“It’s the most awesome relationship [with cadets] that I have ever seen,” Odend’hal related. “I can’t tell you why or how it came about. It’s just because I was where they were. Because of that, I began to get a, ‘Hi, mister! Hi, Barney!’ Now I expect that there’s not a cadet who doesn’t know something about Barney.”
Butch Staton, custodial supervisor over barracks, also knows something about Barney. “He’s absolutely reliable,” said Staton, who has been Odend’hal’s supervisor ever since Odend’hal was hired nine years ago. “He’s a fixture. He tells me that if he’s not here, he’s bored.”
Sometimes, Staton finds himself having to rein in the older man’s enthusiasm – such as when it snows and Odend’hal wants to shovel as much as possible. “The man is up for anything,” Staton remarked. “He’s one of a kind.”
Odend’hal wears his love for the Institute on his sleeve day in and day out. “VMI is the best of what most schools want to be,” he commented. “I enjoy life more now than I did when I came here to VMI. I have fallen in love with VMI and the people around it. They’re such awesome people.”