Once when O’Dell McDaniel was at an employment office, they asked him what he could do.
“Anything,” he said.
“I drive a truck,” he said. “I cook. I clean. I do window glazing. I do ceramic tile. I do linoleum tile. I do plumbing. I do plastering. I do painting. I’m good on the computer.”
O’Dell McDaniel is a working man.
He first went to work at age 10, mowing lawns and raking leaves in Columbia, S.C. After that came 70 years of toil. But on Tuesday, his 81st birthday, O’Dell will stop working. He’s throwing himself a retirement party at the Tenley-Friendship branch of the D.C. Public Library, where he’s a library technician.
“I look for jobs,” O’Dell told me when I visited him at the library not long ago. He’s been at that branch for about a year. He started with the public library 15 years ago as a custodian at the Cleveland Park location. After that, he drove the Bookmobile. When the Bookmobile was parked for good, he moved from branch to branch: Tenleytown to Chevy Chase, Parklands Turner to Dorothy I. Height/Benning, Georgetown to Mount Pleasant ….
O’Dell started working in the library system after visiting a friend who worked at the Cleveland Park branch. A job there seemed like a good fit. Then again, he’s been able to fit in just about anywhere.
He served two years in the Air Force as an administrative clerk. After that, he was a live-in chauffeur for a family on Long Island. Later he worked at the National Recording Studio in Manhattan as an apprentice music engineer and a projectionist.
He drove a truck, he worked at a golf course, he worked for a Brooklyn menswear shop.
“I always worked,” he said. “I always kept a job.”
In 1973, O’Dell moved to Southeast Washington, where his sister lived. He drove a trash truck for a while, then did auto repair at a garage at 14th and P NW. For five years he was a mechanic and truck driver for a linen company that picked up and dropped off uniforms at area businesses.
“I would work, but if a job wouldn’t suit me, I wouldn’t keep it,” he said. “But I would keep a job.”
For a long time, O’Dell worked doing maintenance for real estate companies. He was usually doing odd jobs on the side, too: plumbing and other home repairs for friends and neighbors.
“I’ve been doing strenuous work all my life,” he said. It was more an observation than a complaint.
Along the way, O’Dell helped raise 14 children.
“The good part about it: I have never had to go the jailhouse or the cemetery for any of them,” he said. “All they’ve ever known me to do is work.”
O’Dell lives in District Heights, Md. He’s been at the Tenley-Friendship branch since last summer where his job is to check out books and shelve them. He said he likes all kinds of books: fiction, nonfiction, young adult.
“But the most popular book of all is the Bible,” he said.
I asked if he read that.
“Not as much as I should, but I do,” he said. “But I will be reading it more because I probably will be called on to do something at my church.” That’s Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Northeast.
As long and as hard as O’Dell has worked, he said he’ll probably still need to pick up the occasional odd job. “Social Security’s not gonna do it,” he said.
I asked him how he learned to do so much, how he mastered so many jobs that require skilled hands. Is there a secret?
“Watch,” O’Dell said. “I’ve always watched closely. I never went to class for it. Just watch. I was told by one of my old employers years ago, he said, ‘If you always keep your eyes open and your mouth closed, you’ll learn a lot.’”
On Tuesday O’Dell will bring a cake in to the library to share with his co-workers.
And on Wednesday?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll do some work. I feel like I may just rest for a couple of days.”
I think he’s earned it.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.