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Subway driver outlasts senators, retires after 41 years below the Capitol

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN Capitol Hill Reporter
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
By one estimate, Daryl Chappelle has made 130,000 trips conducting the Capitol's underground subway.
By one estimate, Daryl Chappelle has made 130,000 trips conducting the Capitol's underground subway.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There is a small subway service that runs under the Capitol
  • Daryl Chappelle has been a driver for 41 years and now he's retiring
  • He's been around since the Nixon years, and has outlasted just about everybody
  • He stepped onto the Senate floor for the first time on Thursday, where senators paid a tribute

(CNN) -- In the U.S. Senate, where power extends from seniority and most politicians pride themselves on longevity, Daryl Chappelle has humbly outlasted them all.

Retiring Thursday after 41 years, the Senate subway car operator has served longer than any current member of the Senate and all but two members of the House.

Longevity that is hard to grasp

Chappelle came to the Senate, not long out of high school, in 1972. First a worker with the night labor division, he then moved into his second and final job as a subway driver/mechanic.

Ever since, the 62-year-old's office has been a single swivel seat inside a small open-air jostling train cab. His task has been to carry senators back and forth from the Capitol to their office buildings.

By one estimate, Chappelle has made the trip 130,000 times.

The longevity is hard to grasp, from an era where many Americans expected to work in a single place for 30 or 40 years.

The Watergate scandal. The Cold War. The Clinton era. September 11th. Chappelle has worked in the Capitol during every historic event the nation has seen since the time of Richard Nixon. When he began, the Berlin Wall was barely a decade old and Afghanistan still had a king.

And in all that time, Chappelle never once stepped onto the Senate floor. Until Thursday.

41 years, then first steps onto the Senate floor

"That was incredible," the bespectacled man beamed as he told CNN about the trip two floors above the subway, into the much more majestic Senate chamber.

"That was really special. I don't know how else to describe it. Incredible," he said.

Top leaders from the Republican and Democratic parties took to the floor to recognize Chappelle, the man who had almost no power except for what he was able to do with the few minutes American leaders sat on his train.

What he did was smile.

"He has a smile the covers his whole face," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a tribute on the Senate floor.

That smile has made Chappelle a bit of a legend in the echoing, sterile Capitol Hill halls. He wears it for the crankiest of politicians and on the longest of overnight sessions.

"He's the happiest guy you ever met," followed Reid's adversary, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. "He has a genius for lifting people's spirits."

McConnell relayed the story of one of his staffers who on her first, nervous day on the Hill, asked Chappelle for directions. The subway operator gave them to the young woman and then, McConnell recounted, he said something simple that she never forgot in the overstressed workplace: "Everything will be alright."

Lines outside his subway car

The job of subway driver is monotonous. Shuttling back and forth, back and forth, underground for the one-to-two-block distance between buildings. Responding to a buzzer that senators can sound when they are in a particular hurry.

It is the kind of job and Chappelle is the kind of worker that both parties talk about in vague rhetoric all the time. But Thursday, Chappelle took in very specific congratulations from the powerful and nearly-powerful all day long.

Small lines formed as senators, staffers and visitors stood by his subway car to shake his hand and offer goodbye hugs. Dozens of reporters signed a card for him. (Disclosure: including this reporter.)

"Congress may not have a high approval rating these days," McConnell said as Chappelle sat in the chamber listening, "but nobody who ever has had the pleasure of riding Daryl's train can leave without feeling a little bit better about this place."

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