For nearly two decades, Russell train conductor Daryl Chappelle has been lightening the mood of somber senators boarding the subway system that connects the chamber's offices to the Capitol.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., credits Chappelle's "legendary smile" for warming his spirits "on days when I was really down in the dumps."
"He just always has that happy smile, wishing you well, making your day just a little bit better," Durbin reflected on the Senate floor Thursday.
Chappelle has taken an estimated 130,000 trips between the Russell Building and the Capitol since he started driving the train in 1986. Thursday marked his final day on the job, after 41 years of service to the Capitol.
The much-loved employee came to Capitol Hill right out of high school at age 19. He began his career working nights in the Labor Division of the Senate Superintendent's Office before transferring to become a mechanic and train operator. The system got an upgrade during his tenure to accommodate wheelchairs, but his job has stayed the same, and staffers who started as pages still stop to stay hello.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recalled one young woman on his staff who met Chappelle more than a decade ago, on her first day in the Capitol.
“She’d just moved here from Kentucky for an internship. She didn’t really know her way around, and she was pretty nervous," McConnell said. "And it must have showed too, because after giving her directions to the office, Daryl not only gave her a big warm smile, he also left her with a message that she’s never forgotten."
As she stepped off the train and headed off to her first day on the job, Chappelle looked at her and said, "Everything’s going to be OK."
People were pretty much tripping over each other to say their goodbyes to Chappelle this week, McConnell noted. Senators, visitors, colleagues, locals — everybody.
“It was like a rolling party down there all week long," he said.
A 'Happy Retirement' banner stretched across one of the Russell trains on Thursday, and Chappelle was toting a plastic sack from the gift shop handed to him by one of his many admirers.
By the sound of it, the Senate could be more dour next week, after Chappelle officially launches into retirement.
"I know we get involved in some pretty tough debates around here and people often walk around with a scowl on their face," Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "It is nice when people like Daryl remind us that we're lucky to be alive each day and come to such a wonderful place as the United States Senate."
Flashing his trademark grin near the end of his final shift, Chappelle struck a sentimental note.
"I'm going to miss everybody and their beautiful smiles," he said. "I'm going to miss them all."