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Cooking up family

Although women were only fully admitted to the University 29 years ago, there has been a woman in the basement of a fraternity house for almost 40 years.

Dorothy Harris, better known as Buzz to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers, has been cooking in the basement of the fraternity house for 38 years.

Harris grew up in Charlottesville. She said she would often come by the University and admire the fraternity houses.

She said she often thought, "I sure would like to cook for one of those fraternities."

She answered an ad for a cook for Phi Kappa Psi, and after a two-week trial period, was hired on a permanent basis -- and has been there ever since.

One reason why she said she has lasted so long is her devotion to her "guys." Neither rain, sleet, nor snow will keep Harris from her duties.

"If it's bad weather, I try to get here anyway," she said. "That's my job, cooking for these guys."

Harris' nickname, Buzz, dates back to 1969, when she was bedridden for several days because of an operation. She recalled that one of the brothers told her to quit laying on the bed "like a damn buzzard and get back to work."

She did, and that not only brought about her nickname, but also her philosophy -- she rarely calls in sick.

Even when she had children -- seven total, three while employed by Phi Kappa Psi -- she said she took off minimal days.

"I had them, got well, and came back to work," she added.

But Harris is a mother figure to more than her seven children.

At the moment, Phi Kappa Psi has 38 brothers and three pledges. Fourteen of the brothers live in the house, and about 25 of them have the daily meal plan. The rest have five meals a week.

"I cook for them just like I do at home," Harris said.

She cooks everything from turkey to cornbread to baked spaghetti to mashed potatoes and gravy.

"I do all that by these two hands all by myself," she said.

Dan Payne, fourth-year College student and Phi Kappa Psi president, has known Harris for over three years.

"I think her food's great," Payne said. He said his favorite meal is her Friday brunch, which includes bacon, eggs, pancakes and grits.

Harris said her motherly instincts don't stop with putting food on their plates.

"They worry me sometimes," she said. "I get really attached to them. They're just like my children at home. They mind me well. They eat their lunch in my kitchen. It keeps me going every day."

She added that she also has seen a change in the brothers over the past 38 years.

"Back in the '60s and '70s those guys were all right," she said. But "they never hung around in the kitchen like these boys do. I like that."

But not everything has changed in her years at the fraternity. Harris has had the same kitchen appliances since 1973.

"My kitchen might be old, but it's clean," she said.

When she's not cooking, Harris is straightening her shelves or other odd jobs around the kitchen. She's there all week from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. -- and a half-day Fridays -- but "there's always something to do here," she said.

She serves lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and dinner is on the table around 5:30 p.m. every Monday through Thursday.

"They don't ever have to wait for their meals," Harris said.

Harris' relationship with the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi is symbiotic.

"I personally think she's one of the best things that ever happened to us," Payne said. "She definitely takes care of us."

And Harris has a similar sentiment. "Now they're taking care of me," she said.

Four years ago Class of 1986 graduate Paul Mellin started a trust fund for Harris' retirement. Alumni donate about $5000 each year, which is managed by alumni who work on Wall Street. Harris receives a monthly check from the revenue each month, said Cameron Cox, a second-year College student and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity member.

The Saturday of Homecoming Weekend, the fraternity holds a Dorothy Harris Appreciation Day and welcomes back 40 or 50 alumni, one of whom is current Board of Visitors member Benjamin Warthen. The alumni help fund the trust fund.

As she approaches 40 years with the fraternity, Harris reminisces how fast the time has passed.

"I never thought I'd stay here that long," Harris said. "I'm still not ready to leave. I'll stay here as long as I feel like it. I never leave until I know everybody's gotten something to eat"


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