The work shirt fraternity

By Jay Jamison

After the week of final exams as an undergraduate over 40 years ago at Illinois College, I switched from absorbing history, philosophy, literature, chemistry and all the other intellectual activities in the life of a student, to the largely thoughtless task of pure physical labor. Up until my senior year I worked with the college maintenance crew during the summer, and one of the biggest tasks was preparing for commencement. For an entire week between the last final exams and the next weekend, the campus was a flurry of activity. When I was an undergraduate, commencement was held outdoors, on the college lawn. My new instructors were the men and women of the maintenance staff. We labored to make the campus look beautiful using a small dump truck, two ancient pickup trucks and an equally ancient tractor.

For commencement, we built a wooden stage for the faculty and other dignitaries. Without any diagrams or drawings, the old hands knew how to construct the platform to hold the collective brainpower of the college. We constructed wooden bleachers in an arc outlining the perimeter of the commencement festivities. Early in the morning on the Sunday of commencement, we received our orders for the day. We loaded into the dump truck and the two pickups, around six hundred putty-colored metal folding chairs from the old coalbunker in Memorial Gymnasium and drove them to the upper quad. For hours we labored unfolding the chairs in perfect rows between the bleachers and the stage. For a student, whose main activity had been reading and studying – along with lifting the occasional malt beverage – this was backbreaking labor.

When we were done, one of the old timers on the crew told me about his favorite part of commencement. “Watch the graduates after they parade in and are stand among the folding chairs,” he said, with a wink. At first, I didn’t understand, so he elaborated: “When President Mundinger says, ‘please be seated’, they’re going to sit their fannies onto steel folding chairs that have been sitting in the hot sun for five hours.” (Only he didn’t say fannies.) It was to be the last abrupt sensation, reminding the new graduates that they were about to leave the sheltered confines of a college campus and be thrust out into a hostile world. When I paraded in cap and gown across the college lawn in 1978, I remembered the sage observation of the maintenance old timer, as I stood in front of my own griddle of a folding chair on commencement day, anticipating the final sting.

Since those days four decades ago, I’ve encountered brilliant scholars in graduate school, and extraordinary personalities through the many years since. But I never forgot the people who do the thankless job of preparing the campus for commencement. Since then I’ve made it a point to get to know the janitors and maintenance people wherever I worked. If there is no chalk, or nowadays dry-erase markers, in a classroom where I’m teaching, I will know who to call for a supply. They are the people who actually do keep the lights on, keep the floors polished, the carpets vacuumed and the lawn mown. I’m happy to say that I am as much an alumnus of that fraternity in blue work shirts, as I am as a graduate of Illinois College and the University of Oklahoma. The maintenance folks are often the source of sage advice, even about anticipating something as simple as sitting down.

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