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Iconic Dunkin' coffee girl spends 34 years brightening the daily grind

Longtime employee Dee Slater, of Baltimore, helps customers at the Laurel Dunkin' Donuts on Route 1 in Laurel, MD on Tuesday, April 12, 2016.  Video by Jen Rynda/Baltimore Sun Media Group

If you roll into Dunkin Donuts on Route 1 early on any weekday morning, it's hard not to be rattled by CNN's drumbeat of gloomy news dancing across the screen. But if you steer your eyes below the TV, saturate yourself in the moment, there's hope you can stiff-arm the bad stuff and focus on what helps mend body, mind and soul.

In the center of the sunrise healing process is Dee Slater, the iconic Dunkin counter gal, pouring another of the chain's signature coffees.

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"Good mornin', girlfriend!' It's one of the hundreds of cups she will pour during her morning shift at the popular fast-food eatery and bakery. "Haven't seen you in a while. …You're a mess!...Tell the missus I said hello… Have a blessed day!"

During the 34 years Slater has held court at the shop, she has helped keep the coffee and the conversation fresh and flowing. Her customers form a richly textured mosaic, from pastors to plumbers, police officers to politicians. Her encyclopedic knowledge of names and tidbits relating to legions of individuals is staggering.

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"It's God's gift to me," she asserted, as the aroma of coffee and toasted bagels settles throughout the room.

Jeffrey Mills is convinced that Slater's work at the store has a profound impact on business there.

"You see that line?" he asked, sitting at one of the handful of tables. "She knocks it down," said Mills, who owns a long-distance trucking school in Laurel and ran for a seat on the City Council last year. "I told her straight up if she isn't here, I'm not here. It's not about the other employees."

Slater, 60, disagreed.

"It's really not about me," she stated flatly, wiping down the counter. "This is about teamwork, about everyone being willing to do the work that they have been assigned to do. There's no way on earth I could do this alone every morning unless we all came together as one and had the heart, the compassion, to not mind going outside our job descriptions. You're only as good as the folks supporting you. You need to watch each other's back, be there for them. How else can you make it run smooth?"

One of Slater's coworkers is Miral Mistry. The nine-year veteran said she "likes everything about the job." And while she long ago became adjusted to the early shift, she admitted it can get "a little hard. But we manage." Slater, she said, beaming, is a constant source of support: "She's a nice person, a good person."

Another employee, Shobhnaben Patel, who said she's only been at the store for several months, said, "it's good, it's teamwork. Miral and Miss Dee both help me."

Just as Slater doesn't mind going the extra mile in order to make the business hum, many of her customers gladly put in the extra miles to get there.

Harry Hughes, for example, said he lives in Bethesda and works as a salesman in Jessup, but he goes out of his way to breeze into the Route 1 Dunkin Donuts.

"I appreciate the smile, the personality," said Hughes. "Dee says, `here you go! Here's your change.'"

"I love her," affirmed Anthony Johnson, the store's new manager"When I walk in that door in the morning, she lifts my spirits up."

Slater and the morning crew never cease to put her in a good frame of mind, affirmed Ruth Walls, a longtime Laurel resident and community activist.

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"People come to the shop to see Dee as much as they do to eat the food and drink the coffee," she said. "Where else can you go in Laurel where somebody uplifts you, loves you, jokes with you? Someone who's always in a good mood and is genuinely happy to see you?"

Toward the end of Slater's shift, Michael Davis, another regular, popped in. Davis, who works as a salesman at the Kia dealer next to Dunkin', branded her as "extroverted, familiar and lively. And he drew a lot of parallels with what he does. "One of the key rules of selling cars," he said, "is building rapport. She does that within a minute and a half of coming in here."

"In her charismatic way, Dee seasons our lives with joy, acceptance and love, with fun adding that flavor," Walls said.

On a mission

Slater's early years were spent on the family tobacco farm in the Calvert County town of Lusby, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We had a 3 and a-half acre farm. I lived with my great-great grandparents. My brother and I worked hard and went to school," she said.

Slater quit school one year before graduating and left home. She worked at a garden apartment development in Laurel, cleaned houses and also labored at a small carry out sandwich shop in Northwest Washington. When she took a job, she said, she worked hard at it. "I stick to my jobs,"

As sturdy and as nimble as she seems, Slater suffered a heart attack a few years ago, which landed her in Laurel Regional Hospital for a while. But, true to form, she bounced back in short order, returning to the early-morning routine. As age catches up with her, she has been plagued with debilitating arthritis in a hand and knee.

"This morning, I couldn't pick up the coffee pot, it hurt so much," she said. "At home, I let the answering machine get most of my calls. When you're on your feet as much as I am," she said, "it starts to take its toll on you. But with God's help, I survive."

Her day begins in the wee hours, when she awakens at the house in Baltimore City she shares with her husband. That typically allows her ample time to punch in at Dunkin' around 4 a.m. But she doesn't just run the counter: "You've gotta get the stock, get everything ready. I clean the bathrooms."

Along with her own health issues, she is a doting wife to James, her husband of 40 years. They met when she worked at the carryout.

James, 82, a retired federal worker, has leukemia, an illness which means Slater has to take him to chemotherapy five days a week for a month.

"That's what marriage is all about," she said. "Always remember, there may be someone that's worse off than I am. You wake up in the morning and it's a blessing."

Slater repeatedly underscored what her mission is.

"It's about sharing and loving each other," she declared, her voice rising, her mischievous eyes searching the cracks and crevices of the room as the tiny parking lot fills. "I wish I could change the world, give it all love and no hate. The Lord has to do that. But I want to help."

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