Capri Scarcelli | A&E Editor
Sept. 8, 2022
To Debbie Byerly — better known as Miss Debbie — being a Duquesne employee means being the family someone always needed, even through a simple “hello.”
Byerly has worked at Duquesne for 48 years as head cook and register for Hogan Dining Center, and is second in seniority for Duquesne Dining staff.
For Byerly, nothing is more important than making connections with the students. She valued making conversation with students, asking how their day is going or where their classes might be, reminding students to stay safe and to not forget their studies.
“I’m here for the students,” Byerly said. “I try to be there, look at their [ID] card and learn their names. You see the same people everyday, so I try to learn who they are.”
Now, however, Byerly has been moved to the Duquesne Union’s newly renovated touch-and-go market, Connections where she rarely interacts with the students she loves.
According to Byerly, changes have been made in company policy that would force her to move locations, giving her less interaction with students on campus while replacing her previous position at Hogan with part-time employees. Byerly said that in order to keep her health benefits, she had to take this position.
“We waited for those jobs. Losing them like that made us very sad,” Byerly said. “We’re trying, but it’s not the same.”
According to her coworker, Debbie Bell, Byerly is “one of a kind.”
“Debbie would call each child by name. She would remember all of those students that would walk through that [dining center] door and remember their names,” Bell said. “It’s remarkable how she would go out of her way to help a student with disabilities, a child with a broken leg to carry their tray … She’s very active in our union. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have a decent contract.”
From 6:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., Byerly is in charge of restocking shelves and helping with the Connections register.
When her shift is over, students can do self-checkout with their Duquesne ID, debit/credit card or thumbprint — being that the market is open for 24 hours. The checkout machine, which Byerly calls “Ralph,” is her “partner-in-crime,” along with the help of the surveillance camera.
Byerly said she would rather the students be waited on electronically than not at all, but wishes she could have more time to interact with the students.
Byerly reminisced working alongside her mother for 50 years at Options (now Cinco Cantina) before she retired, accompanied by her cousin and sister-in-law at the breakfast grille line in Hogan.
“My mother worked here in the late 60s,” Byerly said. “As for myself, and all of my cousins, we would come in from high school at age 14 and do the dishes. When we got old enough, we waitressed for the catered events, and when I graduated [high school] I just stayed.”
Now though, she packs these fond memories behind her, struggling to be a part of the students’ lives as she has for so long.
“I’m not as present,” Byerly said. “I’m running back and forth stocking shelves. When I was at the register [at Hogan], if a student wanted to speak with me, they would just come back or step to the side while I was waiting on the rest of the customers coming through. I really miss the kids, some of us had been extremely close.
“I’ve been invited to many, many graduation ceremonies, given speeches for cancer relay. I just miss seeing the kids and being involved, talking to them and being there for them.”
When Byerly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, she had to take a temporary leave from her Dining Center duties to take care of herself through surgery and chemotherapy. That September, she returned to campus and began radiation, though was met with an infection.
“The students motivated me. I got so many get-well cards from them. I got one that was almost three feet long, signed on both sides,” Byerly said. “My family, all the prayers, my friends, everybody was just there for me. God was there, he had me.
“I didn’t have the energy to worry about it, but I gave it to him so he could keep me here long enough so that my mother goes before me.”
Now recovered, Byerly said she makes the most of her time off by planting flowers, laying in the pool, going to the movies and having date nights with her mom once a week.
When it’s back-to-school time, she makes sure to give every greeting and compliment to every student she encounters, making sure they feel included on this campus.
Bell said that “Debbie [Byerly] is not used to people recognizing her for all that she does.”
“She does everything out of the goodness of her heart,” Bell said. “She deserves to be recognized for all her ability.”
Byerly will remain as a Duquesne Dining employee for the next two years, though she is contemplating retirement.
Visit Miss Debbie with a simple “hello” and “how are you” at Connections to brighten your morning — and hers.
CORRECTION: In the story’s print version, the last name “Byerly” appeared as “Barley.” The correct spelling is now reflected in the story’s online version.