The first thing students notice at the entrance to Room 109 in the City College Science Building is a sketch taped to the door, captioned “Even cockroaches are required to wear lab coats.”
It’s a perfect introduction to the blend of wry humor and intense dedication that Darryl Warner, the man responsible for the cartoon, brings to his job as chief technician in the gross anatomy lab at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. As a diener (the technical term for his occupation), he prepares the cadavers and organs that Sophie Davis students and aspiring physician assistants from Harlem Hospital dissect and study in the lab. But when there’s time, he enjoys giving tours of the lab and an adjoining museum of body parts. He always makes time to be a mentor.
Warner, 53, has been working as a diener for more than 30 years, and most items in his small office that tell his life story are related to the medical field: a small papier-mache skeleton showing the internal body structure; the digestive system in the form of a puzzle; illustrated anatomy books; a teddy bear in green scrubs. Highlighting some of Warner’s many other interests and experiences are a model of a sailing ship; photographs of the catch from fishing expeditions, including a 75-pound tuna almost as big as Warner himself; a picture of him as a youthful thespian; an autographed photo with former President Bill Clinton when Warner volunteered at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; a bible.
He attributes his dedication to service and leadership to his parents’ guidance, which led him along a circuitous route to his ultimate career. Fifth of 12 children, Warner started Hunter College to pursue physical education and acting studies shortly after his father’s death, but dropped out in his first semester to help his mother support the family. He did maintenance, mechanics and security work. He supervised recreation at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club (he still teaches the art of fishing to kids in his Ozone Park neighborhood in Queens). He was a disc jockey, a salesman, a house painter.
Simultaneously, he indulged in a passion for show business, training at several theater workshops. For eight years he was a protégé of Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones, and performed with him at Carnegie Hall; he also had Off-Broadway appearances and walk-on parts in the TV soap opera “Another World.” Warner wrote and performed comedy and poetry, did Afro-Caribbean and African dance and was a public speaker. “I’ve performed in over 300 shows, plays, productions and one-man shows,” he said. He gave up show business not only to help his mother, but also to start a family of his own.
His opportunity to enter the dieners’ world came in the 1970s when he worked as a security guard at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was offered the job of custodian on the floor where the anatomy lab was located and developed an affinity for the lab work. “I felt it was unique; the human body was interesting,” he said. His hands-on curiosity didn’t go unnoticed. “When they [his supervisors] saw I was interested, they promoted me to the anatomy department as a morgue helper.”
Learning on the job and from books, Warner became proficient in embalming. During nearly 20 years at Albert Einstein, he was promoted five times, and left there with the title of mortuary supervisor when New York University recruited him in 1998 to supervise the anatomy lab in its College of Dentistry.
On 9/11, he had watched from his diener’s office there as the second plane hit and one tower fell and he persuaded the Medical Examiner’s office that he could provide specialized help in identifying bodies. “I was determined I was gonna help because not too many people do this type of work,” he said. He worked at Ground Zero until April, 2002, relieving stressed-out rescue workers, helping search for bodies, and comforting distraught survivors. He took photographs that were featured in a 9/11 commemorative CUNY slide show in September.
He took on the one-person operation at Sophie Davis in 2002 “because I felt this was an opportunity to work with people coming out of high school, to teach them how to work together, to be a mentor to them. I am learning all the time and passing it on.”
Warner has no formal mortuary education except for a course in mortuary science at LaGuardia Community College. But seeking always “to make things better,” he researched and devised ways to raise the standard of hygiene in anatomy labs.
As a husband, and as father of three sons, Warner comfortably interacts with students, giving them a pep talk if they seem depressed and amusing them with his comedy. “Some have family problems. I sit down and talk with them as if they were my sons and daughters.”
Dr. Avelin Malyango, a CUNY adjunct professor who teaches anatomy, and Dr. Abraham Kierszenbaum, chairman of the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at Sophie Davis, who recruited him, readily praise Warner.
“He’s always working hard … He’s one of a kind,” Malyango said. “There’s not enough words for me to describe him. I’ve come across many people doing what he’s doing who end up frustrated. You want him to be there always, because you know everything is going to be all right.”