Men at work
The most difficult situation Allan Breese encountered while working at Physical Plant was responding to the aftermath of an intense storm that occurred on Labor Day several years ago.
The university incurred millions of dollars in damage. Breese, the director of Physical Plant, was searching for an item inside a warehouse during the response.
‘All the emergency lights had died,’ Breese said. ‘I turned my flashlight off because I could see fine. I never even thought to look up.’
When he finally did, he realized the entire roof was gone.
Many students do not notice the behind-the-scenes workers at Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. But employees from Physical Plant, FIXit and Food Services work throughout the year to keep the campus running.
‘We always say that if we do our jobs well, you don’t even know we’re here,’ Breese said.
Physical Plant oversees the general maintenance of the university’s academic buildings. In addition, it is also responsible for maintaining about 20 miles of sidewalks and 10 miles of roads, which is a particularly demanding task during the winter.
‘I’ve had several chancellors tell me they’ve been to other institutions and no one handles snow clearing like we handle snow clearing,’ Breese said.
Physical Plant has someone available to handle emergencies around the clock. It responds to a variety of situations, from keys dropped in drainage grates to powerful storms and everything in between.
Larry Pittorf, also a Physical Plant employee, ensures that students do not freeze to death when they go to class in winter. Pittorf spends his day checking heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and repairing the motors that run them. He has been at Physical Plant for nine months and enjoys working at the university because the work is routine.
‘It’s totally different than being out in the field,’ he said. ‘There are a lot more responsibilities. When you’re out in the field, there’s something different most of the time.’
Pittorf took a brief break in an armchair in Hendericks Chapel’s Noble Room with some other Physical Plant employees. He said his favorite part of his job is spending time with his co-workers.
The other employees kidded Pittorf for agreeing to an interview. One called him, ‘Larry the Cable Guy!’ When asked if that was Pittorf’s nickname, the employee chuckled. ‘It is now!’ Pittorf said.
J.D. Tessier, director of the Housing and Maintenance Zone, known as FIXit, is responsible for maintaining all residences at the university and oversees a staff of about 150. On his business card it says ‘Head Coach’ after his name instead of ‘Director.’
‘I prefer to be head coach because we help people,’ Tessier said. ‘If you can take care of people, the maintenance will take care of itself.’
Tessier said while he doesn’t know how to fix an air conditioner, he knows how to coordinate people. He believes giving his staff large responsibilities and helping his employees communicate helps them to do their jobs well.
He also believes teambuilding is a crucial part of being able to serve students’ needs effectively. He encourages his workers to develop a relationship with the people they serve.
‘Our philosophy is: ‘Let people make their own decisions and be productive,” Tessier said.
He added that the people FIXit serves are vulnerable, and he is adamant about training his staff to accommodate residents’ needs while ensuring their privacy.
‘My elevator speech is, ‘I’m J.D. Tessier and I take care of naked people,” Tessier said.
Jerry Vincent, who does maintenance work on the third, fourth and fifth floors of ESF’s Illick Hall arrives at 6 a.m. every day during the week.
‘The first thing I do is the women’s room,’ Vincent said. ‘You don’t want to be there when the ladies come in.’
Vincent, whose daughter graduated from the School of Education, worked at Niagara Mohawk for 29 years. Four years after retiring from there, he came to work at ESF.
Vincent said the employees at Illick Hall are like a family because they get along and work together so well. The work does have its challenges, though.
‘Cleaning the stairs, that’s about the toughest,’ Vincent said. ‘You’ve got to start from the top and go all the way down to the bottom.’
Just down the hill on the other side of Interstate 81, Ann Burke works at Brockway dining hall. She started as a dishwasher and worked her way up to her current position, which includes swiping cards, keeping the dining hall neat and making sure students are not running off with the dining hall’s wares.
Burke works from 10:45 a.m. until 7:45 p.m. She said her job is nowhere near as difficult as the cooks’ job because they are constantly running around and trying to make sure food is put out where it is supposed to be.
‘I probably have the easiest job in this whole dining hall,’ Burke said.
Burke said her relationship with the students who come to eat at Brockway is cordial.
‘Generally, working up here, you start getting friendly (with the students),’ Burke said. ‘They did start a Facebook group for me. That was a little weird.’
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