More than 50 years after he spent a summer working security detail at the White House during the Eisenhower administration, Don Mooney now swipes the ID cards of students entering Towers Dining Hall. He hums the tune of an old favorite song and greets each patron with an exuberant “Hello, hello!”
During his break, he will sit with students to tell stories from his upcoming autobiography, “I Used to Be a Lot of Things and Just Became Myself.” At nearly 80 years old — he won’t tell his exact age — Mooney is a published author and poet who draws on his life experiences to inspire the students he works with.
“I’ve had my share of tragedy,” he said. “Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, the one I enjoy most is my little job as cashier here at the college. It’s the first time I feel like I fit in at my job.”
Junior Peter Turner, a student worker at Towers, is often the recipient of Mooney’s advice. His most common guidance, Turner said, is to try to live a stress-free, no-strings-attached life.
“Don always tells me I should graduate, buy myself a camper and travel until I find somewhere I’m happy,” Turner said. “He wants students to get a job they will love and be able to live with as little stress as possible — to be free.”
Mooney grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but spent most of his life in Boston. He graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in public relations in 1960. After, he spent time living on the water as a commercial fisherman.
While working for General Dynamics shipyard, Mooney said, he had one of his stories — a naval article about buying a battleship — published in The Boston Globe. As is the case with many of Mooney’s experiences, writing led to learning, and learning about sailing prompted him to try it.
“I’ve lived on the water for nearly half of my life as a commercial fisherman,” he said, his Boston accent coming through stronger. “I have a 32-foot houseboat in dry storage right now.”
Mooney moved to Ithaca about 15 years ago on a whim, he said. He began his job at Towers in 2007 and uses his free time as a Tower’s cashier to write.
“When I’m sitting behind the cash register, ideas come to me,” Mooney said. “Some of the best poems happen when I’m not trying, like I’m just the instrument, and the words flow through me.”
Mooney’s boss, Towers Dining Hall Unit Manager Tim Leonard, has seen Mooney talking poetry with students on his breaks and helping them get their ideas down on paper.
“He loves picking their brains and giving them new ideas for poems,” he said.
Mooney said his desire to support others helped foster close relationships with his coworkers at Towers. Sue Sill, who works at the Grab and Go station next to Mooney’s cash register, said he has been a good friend to her.
“When I’m home sick, Don will call me and give me advice for how to get better,” Sill said. “We definitely look out for each other here, and Don is the one to go to for advice.”
Mooney is an asset to the workplace because he’s so friendly and outgoing, Leonard said.
“Don is a great greeter because people really like him, and he likes helping people,” he said. “People come to him for advice sometimes, to get his input about decisions they have to make.”
Turner said he’s heard Mooney’s stories about everything from his previous jobs to his day-to-day activities.
“Sometimes Don takes the heels of bread and other uneaten food from the dining hall and feeds it to his neighbor’s horses,”
Turner said. “It just goes to show you how everything he does, he does it to try to help.”
Mooney’s love for creating art doesn’t stop at writing — he channels his inventive energy into yet another hobby: making spoon jewelry. In his spare time, Mooney makes the jewelry, mostly rings and bracelets, out of antique silverware specimens he comes across at flea markets. Because the end of the spoon handle will become the decorative top of the ring,
the process must begin with an interesting spoon.
“To get the best results, you have to start with the finest materials,” Mooney said.
Mooney said he has learned the tricks of the jewelry trade. He can now tell what size a ring will be by measuring the cut spoon handle against his finger.
“If the spoon handle is the length of my index finger, the ring will end up a size six,” he said. “If it’s as long as my middle finger, it will be an eight or nine.”
Mooney and his wife, who makes her own jewelry from seed beads, sometimes travel to craft shows in the summer to sell their products. Rings run for $15, or two for $25, but stories are free.
While he said he can’t put a price on his writing, Mooney judges his success as a writer through the people who are affected by his work.
“People say it’s a shame to waste youth on the young, but it’s also a shame to waste wisdom on the old,” he said.