Whether he is cleaning cafeteria tables and mingling with those who cross his path at Tusculum University or sharing his love of pro wrestling, Travis Parton radiates joy.
When Parton recently celebrated his 20th anniversary working for Tusculum’s food service providers, the university community returned the love. During a special ceremony where he received a certificate to mark this moment in his work career, students as well as faculty and staff members greeted him with cheers and clapping. The outpouring demonstrated the high regard in which everyone at the university holds him.
“He has a very gentle, kind soul,” said Dom Donnelly, Tusculum’s assistant athletic director for communications. “No matter how bad a day you might be having, he always perks you up. He always wants to say hi. I think there’s going to be a special place in heaven for that young man.”
Parton, who has Down syndrome, works weekdays in the cafeteria. Because his duties frequently put him where people eat, he is well-known and a beloved member of the Tusculum family.
Donnelly, who came to Tusculum shortly after Parton, has developed a bond with him. The two have a rapport in which they are able to joke with each other – and discuss Parton’s passion for pro wrestling. They will discuss WrestleMania and wrestlers Parton likes and does not prefer.
Because of Parton’s condition, some people naturally are prone to ask him whether he would like assistance with his job. But Donnelly said Parton politely declines, exhibiting pride in his ability to complete his work.
“He’s always self-sufficient and self-reliant,” Donnelly said. “He makes it clear that it’s his job and he wants to do it. If I pick up his bucket, he says, ‘No, that’s my job.’”
Dr. Dan Donaldson, a member of the Tusculum Board of Trustees, has known Parton for 15-20 years. He organized the anniversary celebration with Roxanna Jaynes, event manager for Chartwells, which is the food service provider for the cafeteria.
Dr. Donaldson and his wife picked up Parton and took him to First Presbyterian Church in Greeneville when Dr. Donaldson was the pastor, and he continues to attend there regularly. They also knew him because their daughter, Heather, met Parton at Comcare, a Greeneville agency that serves people with developmental disabilities. Heather Donaldson attends the day program with the agency, and Parton lives in a community home supported by Comcare. Parton and Heather Donaldson are boyfriend and girlfriend.
“He loves being around people, and he loves the relationships he has with people,” said Dr. Donaldson, who also serves as a Comcare board member. “He likes to kid around with folks. Having the opportunity to work at Tusculum has been really good because he has developed so many friendships with people there.”
Jimmy Sams, director of dining services for Chartwells at Tusculum, said Parton brings many attributes to his job. Sams noted Parton is always smiling and brightening people’s days with his friendliness. He said the students really enjoy seeing his employee.
“He comes to me almost every day and asks if he’s doing a good job,” Sams said. “He wants to know that he’s helpful and useful. The answer is unequivocally yes on all counts.”
Taking a brief break from his work, Parton said he likes cleaning the tables and the salad bar area and enjoys the people with whom he converses. He said he wants to keep working at Tusculum. In addition to sharing his love of pro wrestling, Parton highlighted his affinity for the late Michael Jackson. During the celebration for him, Parton danced – but offered no moonwalk – as Jackson’s “Billy Jean” played in the background.
Brenda Franklin, the team leader of Parton’s living unit at Comcare, said Parton benefits from working at Tusculum.
“He has a really high work ethic,” Franklin said. “I’ve jokingly said to him, ‘You can’t go to work today,’ and he’ll say, ‘Oh yes, I am.’ He doesn’t want to stay at the house all the time. He wants to work. It gives him his independence. Everyone at Tusculum makes him feel welcome, and he knows that. We’re very proud of him.