Veteran Senate subway operator reaches the end of the line

Veteran Senate subway operator reaches the end of the line
Washington subway operator Daryl Chappelle offers a thumbs-up on his final day. As one senator put it, Chappelle, who retired after 41 years of service, was "the undisputed champion of making the most of a brief encounter." (Lisa Mascaro / Los Angeles Times)

The subway ride between the Russell Senate Office Building and the Capitol basement takes no more than 25 seconds to cover a fifth of a mile. But over an estimated 130,000 trips shuttling lawmakers, staff and visitors, train operator Daryl Chappelle was known for making that time count.

As one senator put it, Chappelle, who retired Thursday after 41 years of service, was "the undisputed champion of making the most of a brief encounter."


That's a notable distinction in a body where many have made their mark with hours-long speeches. But so it was with Chappelle.

"My philosophy in life is, if I put a smile on your face, I'm happy and you're happy," Chappelle said, as well-wishers stopped by the train this week to say their goodbyes.

Chappelle's seemingly unshakable disposition had so distinguished the 61-year-old that the Senate's Democratic and Republican leaders found rare bipartisan agreement Thursday as they used their opening remarks on the Senate floor to praise one of those who keep operations running but rarely get the limelight.

"He showed us all the power of a small gesture," Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said. "Congress may not have a very high approval rating these days, but nobody who ever had the pleasure of riding Daryl's train could ever leave Washington without feeling just a little bit better about this place."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Chappelle's outlook "infectious."

"We'll all miss that," he said.

If Chappelle were a senator, his service record would have been seventh-longest in history. Approximately 180 senators have joined the Senate since he started as a 19-year-old working in the night division of the Senate Superintendent – including all 100 who serve today.

It's no understatement to say that some of the nation's most powerful figures have ridden on his train. Asked who might have been among the most famous, Chappelle quickly smiled and said "Vice President Biden." Later he noted that Presidents Ford, Carter and Obama had taken the trek as well (in Obama's case, as a senator).

Chappelle grew up in the northeast area of Washington, D.C., with his parents, the youngest of four sons. He heard about the job from his mom, who had worked nights cleaning up the Capitol for 25 years.

After some time as a custodian, he was promoted to a mechanic and driver on the subway system that connects the U.S. Capitol to auxiliary office buildings, the job he held for the next 28 years.

Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana said that when he returned to office in 2011 after a 12-year absence, seeing Chappelle was like “reuniting with an old friend.”

But even Coats confessed he didn't know much about him.

"All I know is that he brings a smile every day when he comes to work, and a positive attitude. And in this place, that goes a long way," he said.

Chappelle spent his final day as he had many in the past, shuffling travelers along the brief route, with lots of handshakes and hugs along the way. Gifts were slipped in his hands -- Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), gave him a personal letter of thanks, and there was a CD of the Senate speeches made in his honor.

At one point Thursday, as a reporter delivered a card signed by dozens in the Capitol press corps, she apologized to waiting passengers, as Chappelle offered his appreciation.

One of those passengers was none other than Stephen T. Ayers, the Architect of the Capitol, and Chappelle's boss.

"I don't mind, anything for Daryl," he said.

Chappelle turns 62 later this month, and plans to spend his retirement with his wife of 40 years, he said.

His advice for those who will sit in the driver's seat when he's gone?

"Keep a good smile on your face," he said. "Be respectful, and do the right thing."