UW News

January 25, 2007

Neither snow nor rain… keeps this crew down

Editor’s Note: Uniquely Washington is a biweekly column featuring one of the University’s most important resources — our people.

Charles Thompson had just come home and taken off his work boots when the phone rang.

“Good morning,” his supervisor Ken Rogers said with a laugh. “Time to come back to work.”

It was Dec. 14, and a driving rain was falling. Water was getting into the University’s buildings, and Thompson and his crew were needed to clear the drains. Just another day in the life of the Facilities Services team they call the Outside Crew of the Central Maintenance Zone and Thompson, the maintenance mechanic who leads it.

On this particular occasion they were out at the height of a storm that dumped more than an inch of rain in an hour, taking shovels and brooms to clear off drain grates. And their job was complicated by the sand they’d spread only a couple of weeks earlier, when it had snowed. The grates had to be removed and the sand dug out.

The next day, after an overnight wind storm had knocked trees down all over campus, Thompson and his men were removing limbs from the fallen trees, chopping up the trunks and clearing them from campus roads and paths.

“Our job is to keep the campus safe and operational,” Thompson says.

His team of 12 consists of plumbers, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, master mechanics, utility workers and maintenance mechanics. As the name implies, most of their work is outside. They’re the folks who hung all those banners along Montlake, Pacific and 15th Avenue. They installed the “designated smoking area” signs and the ash urns to go with them. They ran the snow plows and spread sand on the paths when it snowed.

But they’re also a “helper” unit, called upon to assist teams in other zones when needed. If, for example, something heavy needs to be moved in order to do a job, Thompson’s team will come in and take care of it. “I think of our group as a team of several different trades with a variety of skills,” he says.

Thompson got to where he is by picking up that variety of skills. He started at the University as a custodian, and did that job for 13 years. To earn extra money, he also worked on construction with contractors, picking up skills in the process. That enabled him to move into a utility worker position with Facilities Services, where he continued to learn.

“There’s so much talent on this floor with all the different tradespeople,” Thompson says. “You can learn so much. At home I can fix so many things, and if I don’t know how, I can call somebody who can tell me how. It’s great to get to know all these talented people.”

He rose through the ranks to his current position, and despite the hard work in all kinds of weather and the sometimes crazy hours, he likes what he does. He explains it with a story about a water main breaking in the E-1 parking lot. His crew shut the water off, cut the pipe, repaired it and put it back together.

“We know it was broken, but other people don’t,” he says. “We like to get in and out without anybody even knowing we were there. I get satisfaction in knowing we make it possible for other people to be safe and do their work.”