Michael Ellison: The Big Man on Campus

Written by Juliana Morello
Photos by Jonathan Guo
April 05, 2023

Michael Ellison’s nickname has followed him since high school. To his friends, family, coworkers and the students at Pitt, he is “Big Mike” — it’s even on his name tag.

“It’s probably because I’m 6’7”,” Ellison said. “I had a lot of nicknames, but that’s the one that stuck through the whole time. And then when I got here, everyone still called me that to this day. My name tag still says it on there. And everybody loves it. The students crack up when they see that.”

Big Mike works in the Market at Sutherland, making coffee and selling snacks to hungry students. But, Ellison didn’t always work on upper campus — he actually started his career elsewhere.

“I was down in Towers the first 10 years, I did everything,” Ellison said. “I started in the deli, and then I moved to the dish room, and then I did receiving for three years, and then I did custodian for, like, four. I’ve been at the Market now, for six years. The last two years I’ve been lead store clerk.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ellison lives in Knoxville — a short 15-minute drive from Pitt’s campus. He is a prominent figure at the Market in Sutherland, and typically works from 4:45 p.m. in the afternoon to 1:15 a.m.

He describes his position as including everything from preparing food to working the register — but what helps him stand out is his positive attitude and his warmness toward the students that come in day after day.

“I think I’m pretty well respected, I mean, they always say hi to me, how am I doing today and all that and they’ll leave like, ‘Oh, I’ll see you later!’” Ellison said. “I just do what I have to do. I try to be a great person, and do what I can and help out when I can, and just do the best that I can do, that’s all. It’s a job, but it’s for the students. It’s all about the students. If the students weren’t here, we wouldn’t have jobs, so it’s about the students.”

Jonathan Guo | Staff Photographer

Ellison is just one member in a team of dedicated workers in Sutherland, and some of his best relationships are with his coworkers, a few of whom he knew prior to working at Pitt.

Ellison prides himself on remembering every student’s name, but said he’s not the Pitt dining worker who remembers the most — that title goes to his self-described “godbrother,” Eric Daniels.

“He’s better than me at it,” Ellison said. “I try to remember as much as I can, I’m a little older now. But he’s good at that, and I try to learn from him. I’m pretty good with them, especially when you see them a lot.”

Daniels has worked at Pitt for 17 years and has known Ellison since he was a child, describing him as a gentle giant.

“He’s a big teddy bear,” Daniels said. “He’s a hard worker, he cares, he’s a very nice guy. You know, don’t be alarmed by the height, don’t be afraid of him being 6’7,” once you get to know him, he’s a very good guy.”

Brittany Kirkwood, another worker at the Market, has also known Ellison her whole life. Though she’s now 27 years old, Ellison watched her grow up, long before she worked in Sutherland.

“He’s a friend of my mom’s, they’ve been, like, childhood friends, and then he watched me grow up,” Kirkwood said. “They’ve been friends for a long time, I think they worked at the same bar together, when she was a bartender so long ago — Happy Days, in Mount Oliver. I don’t even think that’s a bar anymore, that’s how long ago it was.”

Kirkwood has worked at Pitt for five years, as both a cook and a cashier. She and Big Mike’s shifts often overlap, and she said he is always willing to lend a hand.

“He’s funny, helpful — very helpful and always there for people,” Kirkwood said. “He’s just a good time all around. He’s a good guy and he’s a good listener too. We basically are here all day together.”

Kirkwood said her favorite memory with Ellison was in July of 2021, when he attended her wedding. Almost two years ago, that moment solidified for Ellison that Kirkwood had grown up.

Ellison’s workplace relationships also proved to be significant when, in 2008, he suffered a heart attack and needed to take some time off of work. It was through his friends and family — some of whom were also his coworkers — that he was able to recover and make his way back to Pitt. 

Jonathan Guo | Staff Photographer

“I got sick back in ‘08, I had a heart attack, so I was off work for a while,” Ellison said. “When I finally got back, you know, it was almost back to normal. But it was hard because I had to learn how to walk again and everything. But with the help of my coworkers and my friends and family, I did it.”

It’s because of his family that Ellison is where he is today. Ellison said his parents were a great influence to him, especially when times are tough.

“My motto is ‘family comes first,’” Ellison said. “My mom, my dad — they just tell me to do the best I can. Do what you can, everything will work out, you know?”

Despite the challenges he’s faced, Ellison does what he can to stay active, outside of work.

“Every once in a while, I try to get out there,” Ellison said. “I’m getting a little too old for it now. I gotta make sure I ain’t got nothing to do the next day, ‘cause I’ll be sore.”

Despite his age, Ellison’s 21 years of service at Pitt have made him proud.

“The years I’ve been here — it’s been good, I’ve been here 21 years, and these last four have been pretty good,” Ellison said. “I’m just glad to be here, enjoying life. It’s been good here. It’s a great company. I just want to move forward and get better, that’s all. We’re here for the kids.”

Ellison and the rest of the Sutherland staff agree that one of the best perks of working at the Market is meeting new students and watching them become acclimated to life in college. The environment is constantly changing, with students coming and going at all hours of the day.

“They’re good kids — there are pretty good kids here at Pitt,” Ellison said.

The workers at Sutherland care deeply about the well-being and mental health of the new students, especially because entering into college can be such an unfamiliar and intimidating experience. According to Ellison, the best part of the job is being able to be there for the students moving in, year after year.

“We’re always getting new faces. It’s been really cool. Especially when their parents start bringing them in, and you know, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take care of your kids,” Ellison said. “That’s always our motto — we’ll take care of your kids. ‘They need anything, my name is Michael, they call me ‘Big Mike.’ If they need me, I’m here, just ask for me.’”