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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The day porter finally has her day

Renita Corbett June 14, 2016 on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Renita Corbett keeps a pager on her hip. She never knows when a cleaning emergency may arise at the School of Dentistry, requiring quick action. “I’m all over the place,” she said, sitting down in the Koury Hall atrium in a rare moment of calm during her workday. “I don’t really get a break.”

Corbett is a day porter at the School of Dentistry, a job with a unique set of responsibilities for four buildings. In addition to being the home of dentistry classrooms, the School of Dentistry also operates like a hospital, with patients coming to be treated at dental clinics. The clinics require a hospital-level of cleaning, a higher standard than most other campus buildings. Unlike in other classroom buildings or in residence halls, housekeepers can’t be mopping floors during the day. That type of cleaning at the school is done in the evenings, after classes have ended and the clinics have closed.

During the day, Corbett is the facilities person on call, responding to emergencies big and small. She had only been a day porter for six months when a construction crew building Koury Hall hit a water line and water gushed into the adjoining building, called Old Dental or First Dental.

“The flood was up to my hip in Old Dental,” she said, holding her hand beside her to demonstrate. A company that specializes in cleaning up after floods came in to remove the water and debris, but Corbett still had plenty to do. “It ruined everybody’s carpet. There was broken glass. We had to leave fans out for a month or two so the walls wouldn’t get moldy.”

Students, faculty and staff notice that kind of devotion, especially when it’s accompanied by a cheerful personality and a courteous attitude. They showed their gratitude by nominating Corbett for the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. With the 67 nominations she received this year, Corbett’s total topped 200 nominations since 2012.

“We create a lot of dust and trash in the dental school,” one nominator wrote. “Keeping it clean is an incredible feat considering the volume of people who attend our clinics every day.”

Corbett also shines in tasks that are not in her job description, like helping lost dental patients find their way through the school’s mazelike structure. “The buildings are all connected, so it’s real confusing,” she said. “Most of the time, I just tell them, ‘Follow me.’”

One nominator said, “Patients enter the school on a daily basis, likely very nervous about dental treatment. I imagine Renita’s warm and courteous attitude has touched the hearts of many.”

Corbett’s attitude has certainly had a positive impact on the people who work at the dental school. “She stops to speak with everyone,” one nominator wrote. “When I am stressed and having a bad day, she is one of the few people whose contagious smile can immediately change my demeanor.”

Corbett grew up in neighboring Alamance County, where her 75-year-old mother still lives. For 16 years, Corbett sewed pillow shams at the WestPoint Stevens textile mill in Burlington. But in 2005, she was one of the 560 employees laid off by the company when it closed the Burlington plant.

“After they went out of business, I sat home for a year,” Corbett said. “It was a big change and a challenge.” Eventually, she was hired as a University housekeeper. But after filling in for the dental school’s previous day porter, who had been injured on the job, Corbett knew where she wanted to work.

“The lady did retire not long after that. Things work out. He knows where you need to be,” she said, raising her eyes to heaven. Her faith is important to her. She is an active member of Kimes Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Mebane, where she serves on the usher board. “God is first in my life.”

Family is important, too. Corbett and husband, Brian, met while they were working for the textile company and have been married for 18 years. They have three children, daughters LaTamra and Jasmine and a son, BJ. She has a sister and a brother who work on campus, and daughter LaTamra works in the dental school dispensary. Mother and daughter have lunch together almost every day. Daughter Jasmine works at a dermatology clinic in nearby Southern Village. Her son is in 10th grade at Eastern High School.

“It’s a blessing. I thank God for them,” she said. “We have a very close relationship.”

Earlier this year, Corbett spent most weekends cheering on her son, who plays high school basketball and AAU Boys Basketball. They traveled to games in Raleigh; Richmond, Virginia; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Akron, Ohio. “When I’m not at work, I’m in a gym, from about 8 o’clock in the morning sometimes till 9 o’clock at night,” she said.

For a rare half-hour, Corbett was able to sit and talk without her pager beeping. But she’s always ready whenever it does, no matter the season. “Summertime is just like wintertime for us. Every day is a fast day for us,” she said. “It could be a big spill on the floor or a drop of water. You don’t really know what you’re going to get.”