I qualified for work study while in college. Although the memory is 20-cough-some-years old, I vividly recall sitting in a crowded auditorium, learning about the work-study program at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and then being handed an envelope with my work-study assignment inside. When I read the words “Buildings and Grounds”, 18-year-old me had to hold back tears. My brother was the one who mowed the lawn and shoveled snow at my parents’ house. What would I be able to do in this department?
Little did I know the Buildings and Grounds department would become my home away from home. I was assigned to the office where I answered phones, filed work orders and, as I earned more responsibility, became a member of the parking committee. Karen Clifton and Gerry Decious, who were my supervisors, became family to me during that four years. I leaned on them for grown-up advice as I forged my path toward adulthood. I babysat the facilities director’s kids. I joked with the maintenance guys in the office and on campus. If there was ever an issue in my dorm room, I had a direct line to the people who could help. Almost 20 years after graduation, I still am very close to Gerry (who now is retired) and Karen (who still expertly manages the facilities department office).
Therefore, you can imagine how excited I was when I recently was pitched a story about Cornell College’s upgrade from central steam heating to standalone boilers connected to a building automation system. I immediately contacted Karen to determine whether I could interview Joel Miller, Cornell’s current facilities director. I was thrilled Miller agreed, and I set up a time to visit campus so I could tour the buildings in which I had so many wonderful memories. In fact, one of my clearest recollections of campus living was related to the steam heating system. In the dead of winter, once my fellow students and I returned to our residence halls from class, we’d change into tank tops and shorts and run around barefoot with our windows open because our rooms were so hot. As you’ll read in “Component”, it was virtually impossible to regulate the steam heating system.
Miller’s tenure at Cornell began long after I graduated, but he’s the type of no-nonsense facilities director who makes you very comfortable in his presence and, consequently, is a solid team leader. Miller believes in sustainability and saving every penny, so I realized quickly what an asset he has been to the college. He also taught me a few things while I was interviewing him. For example, today’s maintenance staff is not the staff of my Cornell experience. These are men and women who grew up with technology and played Nintendo and PlayStation, which innately prepared them for today’s Internet of Things era. I had never given video games that much credit before!
Miller also helped me realize that Cornell not only prepared me for my writing career via my majors, but it also inadvertently ignited my love of buildings by randomly assigning me to my work-study position all those years ago. The almost 60 buildings on campus—which qualified Cornell to be one of only two U.S. college campuses listed in their entirety on the National Register of Historic Places—were the first buildings with which I fell in love. I’m forever grateful to Cornell for setting me on an unexpectedly wonderful career path writing about buildings and grounds.