Benard Diggs: 40 years of making a difference in people’s lives at UMSL

Benard Diggs, director of the Millennium Student Center operations at UMSL, tells a story from his early days 40 years ago at the university. An anniversary party was held June 24 to honor Diggs who started working at UMSL as a custodian and is now working on his doctorate in education leadership. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Benard Diggs learned about the University of Missouri–St. Louis from the ground up.

“In 1973 I reported to the basement of the old administration building to work nights as a custodian,” Diggs said. “I was 22, tall and skinny with a huge Afro. I was going to college in Illinois and needed the money. A friend’s father got me the job working on the floor crew. There were 21 of us in those days.”

At the time, Diggs was a pre-med student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Today, he directs the 165,000-square-foot Millennium Student Center from top to bottom. And he’s working on his PhD in higher education leadership.

Colleagues, friends and family gathered June 24 to celebrate Diggs’ 40-year run at UMSL and to wish him well in the future.

“He’s so calm and soft spoken. I’ve never seen him get angry,” said Nyonia Frye, a Human Resources assistant since 1977 and a friend of Diggs almost as long.

Most of the nearly 100 people who attended the event had the same descriptions.

“He’s a very caring man,” said Joann Westbrook, Human Resources manager. “He’s always checking on other people. He’ll call and ask how are you doing.”

In a recent interview Diggs shared some of his favorite memories peppered with the jobs he’s held, the celebrities he’s met and the occasional ghost.

“When they opened Marillac in 1976, we were sent in to get it ready for students. It had been empty for a long time,” Diggs said. “A group of us were working one night near the entrance to the auditorium on the ground floor and this big tall guy in dirty, rumpled clothes just appears out of nowhere. We all huddled together scared to death. He never said anything, just turned and walked down the hall.”

Diggs said once the men calmed down they convinced themselves the man wasn’t a ghost. They assumed he might have been living in the building’s tunnels since 1974 when Marillac College closed.

Tunnels?

UMSL purchased the 44-acre Marillac site from the Daughters of Charity. The religious order had built the college to educate future nuns. According to Diggs, the tunnels were used by the nuns to get to and from the dormitories and the Provincial House south of the college.

“Eventually, I got pretty comfortable walking the tunnels,” Diggs said. “People said the tunnels went all the way to the old St. Vincent’s Hospital, but I never checked that rumor out.”

Diggs can name all the bosses he’s had over 40 years and often laughs telling his stories. He has only good things to say about the many people he’s worked with.

“I used to work on the first and third floors of Clark Hall in the mid 70s when the campus was getting really crowded,” Diggs said. “Between the cigarette butts and the coffee and soda cups from the vending machines we swept mounds of trash out of there every night.”

Over the years, Diggs was promoted through the custodial ranks working all over the UMSL campus. At one point he supervised 130 employees. He also assisted with the supervision of the grounds crew and painters, learning how to estimate costs and the amount of paint needed to do a job.

In 1998 another reorganization moved Diggs up to the position of operations manager at the University Center, now a part of the J.C. Penney Building/Conference Center. He oversaw the campus movers, scheduled space in the building and its parking lots and oversaw all special events on campus.

And that’s when he got to meet the dignitaries who have visited UMSL over the years.

“There was Tipper Gore and Vice President Joe Biden. He was good people,” he said. “Dr. Ruth Westheimer (the sex therapist) signed her book for me, and Maya Angelou came in 1995 for Black History Month. That was a fabulous event. She stopped and acknowledged all the custodians.”

The opening of the new $30 million Millennium Student Center in 2000 created great excitement on campus. For the first time, all student services were being offered under one roof.

“Everyone wanted to be here and at times it was chaotic,” Diggs said. “Previously, student services were spread all over campus. The one stop shop was a very different concept. Gloria Schultz and I worked 16 hour days, seven days a week in the beginning.”

Diggs says he grew up at UMSL and he’s proud to lead the people who run the MSC, a building he refers to as “the heart of the campus.”

“I didn’t come here to stay in 1973,” Diggs said. “My hours at UMSL – from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. – allowed me to go to school.”

But as is often the case, life got in the way and Diggs put his college plans aside to keep working.

“I went in and out of school, I got older, course requirements changed and I finally decided to finish my bachelor’s degree,” said Diggs.

Diggs finished his bachelor’s degree in 1994, earned a master’s degree in adult and higher education in 2007 and is on schedule to finish the course work for his doctorate in the fall. Then he will start in on his dissertation on the unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. He says going to school and working full time can get tedious, but he keeps moving forward.

One of his former biology professors attended the June 24 party.

“Benard was a student of mine years ago and survived a weeklong field trip,” said Lon Wilkens, professor emeritus of biology. “His maturity helped to hold the whole field trip together. He stayed calm throughout.”

Charles Granger, Curators Teaching Professor of Biology and Education, also attended the party and referred to Diggs as a “great facilitator.” Granger arrived at UMSL in 1971 and has worked with Diggs in his many roles on campus.

“He has always supported science education and does everything with a smile,” Granger said. “There has never been a job too small or too large for him and he does it all in the blink of an eye.”

The anniversary crowd viewed a slide show honoring Diggs with photographs of him as a child and his early days at UMSL. He told a story about his first night on the job pushing a mop that weighed more than he did.

“UMSL is where I am, where I’m supposed to be,” Diggs told the crowd. “I hope I’ve made a difference.”


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