A Drifter Discovers the Meaning of Life at OSU


Dave Warneking leans over his workbench and slides a hand slowly and reverently across a sheet of mahogany. Its grain is striking, edges crisp and true, surface as luminous as moonbeams.

He lowers his head to examine the wood from all angles. It isn’t beauty that he seeks. It is poetry, which is well hidden and sometimes never found. There is mystery in wood, the way trees evolve beneath leaves and bark, nourished by earth and sun to become, in the case of redwoods, the tallest of all living things.

Mahogany grows primarily in the tropics and often is used for fine furniture. Its versatility extends to luthiers for its richness and sweetness of tone. Boat makers favor its resilience and elegance. For hundreds of years its bark has been valued for its healing powers; and more recently researchers have studied the possibility that it might help treat colon cancer.

Warneking’s intent is to build a dining table, where meals and conversations will be shared; but, for now, it is a collection of unfinished leaves and legs requiring shaping, placement, joinery and finish. Assembling the table will be like putting together a puzzle. Or a life.

Warneking, administrative assistant for Oregon State University’s Department of Housing and Dining Services, (UHDS), spent much of his life searching for missing pieces as he drifted from town to town, coast to coast, job to job. He worked at Kmart selling appliances, built speaker cabinets, worked for a property management firm and did temp work.

In 1998, with encouragement from his wife, Dawn Warneking, he enrolled at Linn Benton Community College before transferring to OSU, where he received a business degree at age 39. It was a time of growth but not fulfillment.

The road he had followed ultimately turned to dust, and after switching jobs three times in nine years at OSU, he could see no way of moving forward except to drift again. A stranger to himself, he felt emptiness and self-doubt, a toxic mixture with frightening effect.

“I was very depressed and up against a wall. I thought to myself, ‘I’m about to lose everything, because if it had kept on going, I would have lost my relationship, my job, my retirement, my self-respect and possibly my life.”

Dawn saw her husband’s unfolding. She suffered a minor stroke in 2003 while working for the Benton County Health Department, and it changed her perception of life and vulnerability. 

Dave & Dawn Warneking“When you see someone of enormous potential going through that and being unable to help him, it’s very scary,” she says. “I had the sense that he was going for a walkabout, that he wasn’t coming back, and I wouldn’t know where he was.

Warneking, in desperation, sought help from the school’s Employee Assistance Program and was diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and anxiety. It was the explanation he needed to understand life and his place in it. Upon diagnosis, he realized that success required him to find work that utilized his strengths. He considered possibilities on campus, but none of them seemed to fit. Then he heard about an opening in UHDS.

He applied and was hired for the position, and while waiting to finish the paper work, he saw a sentence that changed his life.

“It was in a pamphlet, and it said something like, ‘In Student Affairs, we believe that anyone can lead from any position.’ That spoke volumes to me.’”

Four and a half years later, the job still fits and fills him. Discovering the missing piece of his life kindled hope, reward and success.

“Before I started this job, I wanted out, whatever ‘out’ meant. I felt self-destructive. Who knows what might have happened? I felt suicidal, because I could see myself getting into a car at 75 mph and driving into a brick wall.”

There is no wall now. Criticism and failure have turned to praise, and uncertainty has changed to self-confidence.

“This job, these people helped save my life. They’ve given me great pride, great success. It’s a very simple job. It’s not earth shattering, but I feel empowered by the work I’m doing. I’m making a difference in people’s lives every single day in my own way.”

In addition to his role in assisting UHDS Director Tom Scheuermann, Warneking handles payroll distribution, manages six conference room calendars, orders office supplies and furniture, helps keep information flowing in the department, coordinates the hiring process for new employees and, most rewarding of all, helps students find answers.

“Everyone who walks in the door has a need that I can probably help with,” he says. “Finding answers to their questions quickly, efficiently and in a pleasant manner is quite enjoyable to me.”

With Warneking, students and accessibility come first. If he’s assisting a student, other matters must wait. He also gives students his cellphone number in case they need more assistance.

“We’re very customer focused, so the moment that door opens, our attention is on that person. If we’re working on something, we stop. We want to make sure people are welcomed the moment they enter our space.”

His work is not about prestige or money, he says. It’s about examining one’s life—from all angles—and finding poetry.


Division of Student Affairs

OSU Employee Assistance Program - (541.737.3103)

University Housing & Dining Services

Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki