The Journal, University of Illinois at Springfield Weekly Campus Newspaper

‘Thankless Jobs’

Unsung heroes of UIS maintenance

November 17, 2009
By Luke Runyon

The UIS campus comes to life each morning, dorm-dwelling students rushing to class from Founders Hall, staff members filling up coffee mugs in break rooms and tardy commuter students zipping quickly around University Dr.

Trashcans, which were full just a few hours before are now empty. Leaves that recently peppered sidewalks are gone. Floors stained with mud and grime shine once again.

The campus is clean again. And while many would like to imagine that the work just does itself, it’s the labor of maintenance workers and grounds crew members that make our campus beautiful every day.

Grounds Worker: Cliff Edwards

Cliff Edwards

Grounds worker Cliff Edwards stops his truck to pick up a fallen branch. Edwards describes his truck as a “second home,” as he spends much of his day driving from one side of campus to the other.

Grounds crew worker Cliff Edwards said he always heard that, “’If you find something you love to do, money will follow.

“That’s not always the case,” he said with a laugh.

After spending years in retail management, Edwards said he felt unfulfilled. He was ready for a change. So he started classes at Lincoln Land Community College in Horticulture and began work at a local nursery.

Five years ago he decided to come to UIS, working under campus horticulturist Joan Buckles as a ground crew member. As with most maintenance positions, the work is tough, but often invisible to a passer-by.

“It’s the grunt work, everyday kind of stuff. Pulling weeds, picking up garbage, pruning. There’s lots of little things that go into making this place look good.”

He takes some pride in the Japanese garden outside the Public Affairs Center that he helped design. But he said those kinds of project are few and far between, with most work being part of an everyday routine, depending on the season.

“It’s really a thankless job and that’s one of my least favorite parts about it,” Edwards said. “To most people we’re just dirt bags who pick up garbage.”

With a history in nursery work, Edwards real love of the outdoors comes in the form of trees. And while Edwards may scorn the deer that eat the small trees homegrown by the grounds department, he has a soft spot for other wildlife that make their home on campus.

Recently, while winding his way through the trees on West Lake Shore Drive, Edwards came across a wounded turkey. He picked up the injured fowl, placed it near Lake Springfield and left. Only he didn’t leave fast enough. His helpless feathered friend waddled behind him.

According to Edwards it’s those small moments that break up what he calls the monotony of the job. But there’s other small surprises found on this campus that break up the monotony as well.

“This place can be a cess pool, the stuff we have to pick up. Used tampons, used rubbers, spit cups, it’s just nasty.”

Edwards refers to himself as a germophobe, his truck stocked with sanitizing wipes, hand wash and an alcohol spray bottle. “I know what goes on on this campus from what’s left behind,” he said.

While Edwards spends large parts of his day out on the grounds by himself, with his iPod tuned to classic rock, he says the camaraderie with other grounds workers is not lost. “We still get together for breaks throughout the day and have your typical laborer relationship.

“We pull little pranks on each other to break the monotony. I got all the way to 6th St. one day with a pair of dirty panties [a coworker] tied to my bumper.”

Building Services employee: Steve Marvel

Steve Marvel

Building services supervisor Steve Marvel text messages a fellow worker while sitting in the Brookens Library store room.

Steve Marvel wears quite a few hats as building services supervisor. Based in the basement of Brookens Library, in a tiny office close to the freight entrance, Marvel starts his day as a building services employee. He checks email, drinks his coffee, and writes up purchasing orders.

On the weekend he puts on another hate, filling in as a driver for the athletics department. He takes volleyball, basketball and soccer players all over the region to compete.

During Springfest, he forwent another hat and donned a green mullet. Students who participated in last semester’s Springfest may remember Marvel as “Captain Mullet,” a valued member of The Mullet Mafia.

While he may be involved with the goings-on of students on his time off, on the clock it’s his job to make sure several buildings are up to his standards of clean.

“We’re kind of like the unsung heroes of UIS,” Marvel said. “A lot of times, my guys bust their butts getting work done and the work they do can get taken for granted.”

In his eleventh year at UIS, he said some people choose to not notice maintenance workers. According to him, many people see building services as nothing more than glorified “janitors.” After athletics matches at TRAC, building services employees come in to clean up.

“Nobody sees when we come in. They’re in their cars, savoring the Prairie Stars victory,” Marvel said with a smile. “But then we come in with leaf blowers and clean up.”

With a gravelly voice and a warm persona, Marvel said that he’s found a way to be political in his position.

“With some people on campus it becomes ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.’ The job becomes very political,” he said.

Most people never get to see the fifth level of Brookens Library, or what Marvel calls, “The top of the world.” Over the loud hum of generators and heating systems, a song sometimes plays from the building services store room.

Marvel plays keyboard in local band Royal Pain and is proud of their brand of rock n’ roll. He keeps inventory of the room on an ancient computer that houses not only Excel spreadsheets but also several covers performed by Royal Pain.

The store room functions as a 1970s time capsule in addition to housing cleaning supplies, caution tape and toilet paper rolls. Marvel plastered the walls with pictures of his band, classic rock and movie posters. Even the background on the computer is a portrait of John Lennon.

In one photo, Marvel sports a pair of patchwork denim pants. “That picture was a while ago, but I can get still get in those pants,” Marvel laughed.

Empty trashcans, clean sidewalks and polished floors don’t stay that way by themselves. Many maintenance workers arrive on campus before most students are awake. Their job is to make UIS beautiful each day, whether they’re thanked for it, or not.

Photographs by Luke Runyon


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