It’s the middle of exam week. Tired, overworked college students litter Fairchild-Martindale Library, working late into the night.
If a student decides to walk down the stairs of the library into the cafe for a late-night snack or coffee, he or she will likely be greeted by a bald man with a winning smile behind the counter.
That man is Lamar Johnson.
Johnson is a Lehigh Dining employee and one of the more familiar faces on Lehigh’s campus. Born at St. Luke’s Hospital and raised on Bethlehem’s North Side, he has spent his entire life in the Lehigh Valley.
Johnson and his sisters were raised by a single mother who owned a hair salon business in Fountain Hill. At times, things were tough for Johnson and his family growing up.
“I remember sometimes being in the gym for basketball and being hungry,” Johnson said. “My mom used to go just to make sure that we had something. Doing without like that makes you grow up fast. That’s what got me into the work environment early.”
He got a job at a local dollar store at 15 years old to help out around the house. Since then, he’s always had a job.
Johnson, who is on his 18th year working at Lehigh, said he’s learned a lot from watching his mom. Johnson said she taught him consistency and hard work. He said he doesn’t miss work and hardly ever calls out.
Lauren Sleeger, director of Rathbone and Brodhead dining halls, worked with Johnson for three years while he was at Rathbone Dining Hall.
“With Lamar you’re going to meet somebody that has a heart of gold, takes his job very seriously and someone who is full of energy and enthusiasm,” Sleeger said. “He genuinely loves all the students here and tries to get to know everybody. Students really resonate with that. I think we need more people like him. He is just full of life and full of energy. Everybody knows how much he loves the students, and that’s what makes him special.”
Many of Johnson’s coworkers have their own stories about what makes him stand out, including Sardis Gonzalez, one of Johnson’s current coworkers in the Fairchild-Martindale Library cafe.
“In the few months I’ve known Lamar, it’s as if he’s become the big brother I never had,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez recalled a time when she was sick during a shift, trying to get through it because she didn’t want to miss any work. She said Lamar pretty much did her job for the entire night.
Gonzalez said Johnson even left work to buy her medicine and called her later in the night to check up on her.
“Nobody really does things like that,” she said. “It meant a lot for me to see him take time out of his day to check on me and make sure I was OK. I appreciated that a lot.”
During his time at Lehigh, Johnson said he has made countless memories and fostered endless connections. In his career he’s also seen some impressive names pass through the dining halls.
One of Lamar’s favorite memories at Lehigh is of a student named C.J.
“C.J. used to come into Rathbone every day,” Lamar said. “He was always a shy and soft-spoken kid.”
Even when Lamar tried talking sports, C.J. never fired back much. Johnson said the student was never a big trash-talker.
Soft-spoken C.J. happened to play on Lehigh’s basketball team. Johnson, a big sports fan, has continued to follow C.J.’s basketball career closely, even though he plays for a different team now.
Nowadays soft-spoken C.J McCollum is an all-star shooting guard for the Portland Trailblazers, and Johnson is still amazed by it all.
“This is the same kid that used to come into Rathbone and I can’t believe that he’s in the NBA now,” he said.
As Johnson recently celebrated his 18th year at Lehigh in December, he is thankful for the people he’s met and for the memories he’s made.
“If I wasn’t able to make connections, I wouldn’t have lasted this long,” he said.
Johnson says he isn’t done just yet, he has plans for the remainder of his tenure at Lehigh.
“I think it’s time for me to move up and become a manager,” Johnson said.