Dusty the Porter

July 23, 2007

Just got in from France and Belgium for the weekend- what an amazing, educational trip. We went for the sole purpose of exploring WWI and WWII memorials, sites, and cemeteries. And boy, did we- we traveled an immense distance in just two and a half days. More on that to come. Boy, do I have a lot of blogging to catch up on! Now worries, tomorrow will be a lovely free afternoon. Plus, I probably won’t be doing any errands due to the immense amounts of flooding that happened here in Oxfordshire while we were gone.

Our trip was led not by one of our professors, as are all of our other activities, but by Dusty, the former head porter of University College. Porters are really important: they are in the lodge by the gate 24/7, answer all of your questions, sell stamps, report issues, guard the gate and are generally indispensable. Dusty, who is 66, became a night porter at Univ 12 years ago and eventually was promoted to Head Porter. He retired from that just this year.

I got a chance to talk to him while looking down at Omaha Beach from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (more on that amazing experience later). Apparently he became interested in WWI and WWII a few years after leaving the Royal Armed Forces. He set about doing some research on a great-uncle who had been a soldier and on his father, who died a few yards from where we spoke in the battles following the invasion on Normandy. He found out all about them and along the way became an expert on the wars- seriously, an expert. He was our guide and go-to answer guy for the whole weekend. He has done all of the research on his own through reading and visiting war sites.

One of the coolest things I learned is that he has taken his three weeks off each year for many years and traveled to different WWI and II sites around Europe. He never goes to the same one twice, except for when he leads this weekend trip for the SMU-in-Oxford program, which he has done for the last 12 years. How did this random guy, a porter no less, get asked by the professors to be completely in charge of a weekend trip?

One night during a summer soon after Dusty became a porter, Prof. Orlovsky was talking with him in the lodge and Dusty shared his plan to begin working on a book about all the students from Univ. who died in the two wars. One thing led to another and Orlovsky asked him to lead the first-ever SMU-in-Oxford trip to France and Belgium. The first year, 1995,  there were 8 students willing to go and according to Dusty it was quite an adventure, with several flat tires and one Pakistani student who was stopped at every border because of his bright green passport.

I had a chance to read a manuscript of Dusty’s book on the bus as we toured about. It’s at the printers now and will be out for sale in the fall. It’s great! The names of those Univ. men who died in the two wars are memorialized in huge plaques on the walls of the University chapel. Dusty basically went through the whole list and researched each man, his family, where he went to school, and his military history. He also found out how, when, and where each died. The coolest part of the book is that he went around to every British war memorial (which are all along the Western front), took a picture of it, and listed underneath the names of any Univ. men who are listed on that memorial. Fantastic.  He says that his second book will be “much more X-rated” because it will be about his own experiences, and that his third will be about his experiences at Univ. He was a porter when Clinton came around for a long visit with Hillary and Chelsea, so that will be included.

Despite my seasickness (lesson learned: Chunnel beats ferry every time), I had a chance to chat with Dusty on the ferry back to England tonight. Actually, I leaned over and asked, “So, what do you think of Gordon Brown?” Dusty (and his good friend, travel mate, and former Head Groundsman, Ian) are both Tories, and so hate any Labor party member. Too bad for them, I guess. I learned that Tories are for free enterprise while Labor is for state control. Wonder how accurate that analysis is from a Scottish nationalist (Ian) and an avowed Diana-hater and Royalist “through and through” (Dusty). Both also think that Bush is an “ass” and that he wouldn’t be nice to them if they met him. They met Clinton and thought he was very nice, so there you go. They both also hope the next President is a Democrat and made fun of Bush for his poor public speaking. It was nice to be among like-minded folk, let me tell you.

Interestingly enough, both favored Hillary for the next President because she “has backbone, that one”. Eh. Apologize for your vote for the Iraq war and maybe I’ll like you a little better. They weren’t too keen on that idea, though, saying that politicians should havea stiff upper lip and not apologize but just fix any mistake. Interesting notion of how politicians should act, you know?

What a cool guy, right? I mean, I got all of this from him (and Ian) just from asking. Goes to show you what you can learn. But it was just so curious that a former porter would be leading, teaching, and directing this entire (very complicated and minutely planned) operation. After 12 years of doing it, and after many more years of teaching himself about it, I have to say that there was no better man for the job. What an amazing story.


One Response to “Dusty the Porter”

  1. Adam said

    sounds like an interesting guy. we have the same thing as porters in cairo, they’re known as “bowabs.” however, they aren’t educated or anything.

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