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‘A bubbly ball of energy beyond belief’: Forbes’ Brenda O’Hara reflects on 16 years at Princeton

<h6><strong>Courtesy of Brenda O'Hara</strong></h6>
Courtesy of Brenda O'Hara

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes several thousand employees to educate and care for Princeton undergraduate students.

Brenda “Bee” Loretta O’Hara, known around Forbes College for enthusiastically greeting students as they enter the dining hall, is one such employee. Since she arrived at Princeton in 2006, Brenda has worked at Frist Campus Center, Whitman College, and Forbes College.

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The conversation below was edited for length and clarity.

Daily Princetonian: What do you prefer people call you?

Brenda O’Hara: My full name is Brenda Loretta O’Hara, and a lot of people, like friends and family, call me “Bee,” like a bumble bee.

DP: When did you start working at Princeton and what did you do?

BO: 2006. I started at Frist, and then in 2007 I went to Whitman, [when it] was built and ready to run, and I helped put Whitman together, emptying boxes … wiping down and cleaning everything. I was at Whitman 2007 to 2016, and then I departed from Whitman and came to fabulous Forbes.

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DP: What made you want to work here at Princeton?

BO: My brother used to work here prior to me coming, and he used to talk about Princeton all the time. There’s a lot of overtime here, great pay, and most of all great benefits. I put in the application, and I got hired. It’s been a great adventure here. It’s helped my daughter with going to college.

DP: Can you tell us a little about your family?

BO: I have two [kids]. A 35-year-old son, a 6-year-old grandson, and an 18-year-old daughter that just went to Clark Atlanta University.  She didn’t want to come here! “I don’t want to go where mom works,” you know. So she went 13 hours away from me. But she’s in college, and Princeton is helping. It’s really a great place to work.

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DP: What’s your favorite part about working at Forbes?

BO: Coming to work on Sunday and enjoying the chocolate fountain. There is no other chocolate fountain nowhere on campus except the fabulous Forbes. I get to enjoy it with all of the cut up fresh fruit which you can dip in your chocolate, and the pretzels. I enjoy Sundays also because there’s friends and family I get to see. I get to see students from other units. It’s just a great atmosphere on Sundays. Sunday’s my favorite.

DP: Can you take me through a typical work day for you?

BO: I reach here at 6 a.m., I punch in, and then I go to sanitize my tables, fill up my napkin holders, and make sure the salt and pepper shakers are filled. [I] make sure the floor is decent, wipe down the chef table. We open up at 7:30 a.m., so I come to my desk and hook up all the machines, and then whichever day it is … I’m always greeting my students with, “Happy Monday, Happy Tuesday, Happy Hump Day, Happy Friday Eve, and Happy Friday,” and so I try to greet them the best I can and try to keep a smile on their face, and I does that till 11 o’clock for breakfast. Then I go back and do my breakfast tables … to get them ready for lunch.

Lunch starts 11:30, so it’s only 30 minutes to do my tables, but they don’t be that dirty so I just wipe them off and come back to my desk at 11:30. Students come and I say, “Have a good class, enjoy your day,” to make my day go by from 11:30–2, socializing with the students and the staff. 

DP: After work ends, what do you do in your spare time?

BO: I get out of work pretty early, like 2:30. I’m kid-free since my daughter went to college, an empty nester, so now all I have to do is cook for my fiancé, which is her [my daughter’s] father.  [We just] watch TV, maybe play a couple games if it’s the weekend, eat some good food, and just enjoy each other. I talk to my daughter periodically, like every day we FaceTime each other. And I enjoy [time with] my six year old grandson when I can. 

DP: What’s your favorite way to spend time with your grandson?

BO: He loves Walmart, and so do I, so he goes and shops for a toy, and I go and shop for clothes.  That’s our favorite. And Burger King is one of our favorites, so after that we’ll go eat something and then I’ll take him home. 

DP: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood?

BO: I’m from Trenton, New Jersey, not far from Princeton. I grew up with a single parent, my mother, [and] two siblings, my sister and my brother. I am the youngest of my mother’s three kids. A father wasn’t in the household, but he was there for me. I grew up in a small neighborhood. My mother worked. 

[In] my childhood I played with friends on the same street where I lived. Didn’t take trips a lot because we didn’t have the money, but we had a lot of gatherings, and those were great moments. Every Sunday we would go to my grandmom’s. We’d be together and eat food and enjoy each other. I would go to church with my mother.

DP: Is there anything else you’d like to add to help the Princeton community get to know you better?

BO: I had my son at 17, and I was supposed to graduate in 1987 from high school. I didn’t because I was pregnant, and so after I had my baby and everything I went back to school in 2001 and got my high school diploma. And so I was living on my own with my son, a single mom, and then 2004 rolled around. I was in college [Mercer County College, Trenton, N.J.] and I got pregnant again [with] the daughter that’s in college, from my fiancé now. And I left college to have my baby, and I said I was gonna go back. I was gonna go back. 

Fifteen years later, my daughter is 18, I still haven’t gone back. Yet. So this is the thing I want to close with … I want to go back now. I have courses from college, but I wanna go back now and finish what I started. You go through life, and it’s not the mistakes. You learn and you grow.  You can do anything you put your mind to. And so I’m gonna finish what I started.

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The ‘Prince’ also asked students about their experience with O’Hara.

DP: Can you say a little bit about Brenda from the Forbes dining hall?

Talia Czuchlewski 26: She’s so sweet, and she says my name a different way every time, but she always greets me. I love it.

Aaron Cohen 23: Brenda is always very welcoming and cheerful, and I look forward to seeing her every morning when I go to breakfast.

Avery Williams 26:  No matter what kind of day I'm having, seeing Brenda always brings a smile to my face. One of my fondest memories was when I got really sick the third week of school (not COVID-19), and I was so weak that I couldn't get out of bed. When I eventually went downstairs for dinner Brenda reminded me of how strong I was in an empathetic tone similar to my late, paternal grandmother. These words stick with me to this day, so I remember to keep showing up as my whole self to Princeton. So please, whether you're a Forbesian or not, stop by the Forbes Dining Hall and get to know Brenda. She is truly a bubbly ball of energy beyond belief!

This article is part of a series of ‘Prince’ profiles on Princeton dining hall workers and others who take care of our community.  See previous articles on Howard Supthin from Rocky-Mathey (RoMa) and Heather Parker from Mathey.

Raphaela Gold is a Features contributing writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at raphi.gold@princeton.edu.

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