UNCSA alumni want to name dining hall for beloved cafeteria worker (2024)

By his own admission, Nathan Nicolau is not the model alumni from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

He majored in film-making and graduated in 2018, but instead of pursuing film as a career, Nicolau decided to get a master’s degree. He’s now happily teaching English fulltime at Central Piedmont Community College.

UNCSA alumni want to name dining hall for beloved cafeteria worker (1)

“To be quite honest, I didn’t have a good experience,” Nicolau said.

He didn’t elaborate, preferring instead to keep the focus on something positive - someone, actually - a man named Hector Lopez, a food-services worker in the university dining hall.

“He was just always the nicest, sweetest guy,” Nicolau said. “He was always happy and smiling. He always remembered everybody’s names.”

Because of that, when he learned that Lopez had died, Nicolau started a campaign to make sure that students past, present and future remembered Hector Lopez’ name, too, by asking to rechristen the dining hall in his honor.

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Campus community mourns

Chancellor Brian Cole broke the news of Lopez’ June 12 death to the campus community in an emailed letter - the quickest, most efficient way to reach everyone at once.

“Hector was a bright light in our Dining family,” Cole wrote. “He was loved by everyone: faculty, staff and especially, students. He made it a priority to connect with them and anyone who dined in the Dining Hall.”

Lopez, technically an employee of the Aramark company, worked on campus for 12 years, the chancellor wrote. He started in a snack bar called the Pickle Jar before switching over to the main dining hall.

There, he carved out a niche for himself by serving meals dishes at a chef’s table station the university calls “Hector’s Home Cooking.”

And while doing so, Lopez made it a point to live by the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would be treated.

“He didn’t have to know everybody’s name at all,” Nicolau said. “But he did. He called us ‘his children.’”

That sort of kindness makes an impression.

So after reading about Lopez last month, Nicolau knew he had to do something. And being a 21st Century guy, he turned to Change.org to launch a petition drive he feared might turn into a Quixotic exercise in futility.

“I thought it would be me and a couple of my friends,” Nicolau said. “But it took off on (Instagram) and Facebook.”

A trickle of signatures turned into a tidal flood; more than 800 students, alumni and friends of the university signed in less than a week’s time.

Better still, they shared links to the petition and helped make it go viral. Apparently scores of students had the same experience with Hector Lopez as Nicolau.

"Hector was amazing and an integral and memorable part of each UNCSA Fighting Pickle's dining hall experience, both staff and students alike,” wrote Krista Smith of Winston-Salem in signing the petition. “He was not just an employee, he was the light in everyone's day.

“Please, name the dining hall after Hector Lopez, so his impact may be recognized for future generations of UNCSA students.”

Finding a way

Not that it should come as a surprise, but the effort and the outpouring of support for it is working.

UNCSA alumni want to name dining hall for beloved cafeteria worker (2)

Cole reached out to alumni and said he’d talk to Lopez’s family to see what they might want.

Renaming a building, at least on the campus of a public university, doesn’t happen overnight. Not without writing a sizable check endowment check, that is.

Changing the name of the dining hall will take time and deliberation. And more than likely an ad hoc committee and possible input from the UNC Board of Governors or even the Legislature.

For now, renaming the dining hall is Option A for honoring Hector Lopez. But getting the attention (and support) of the chancellor is big, a “step in the right direction” as Nicholau calls it.

Above all, it’s a worthy effort started at a grassroots level to remember a man who touched many young lives through kindness and dignity.

“I never had kids,” Lopez told campus officials in 2020. “Now I have 400 plus and I love it. And again, it's for you guys, it’s not me. That’s why I put my passion into this.”

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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UNCSA alumni want to name dining hall for beloved cafeteria worker (2024)
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