Small details make a big difference

Bill Shadowing - Bruce

As the son of two academics and with twenty years of college teaching under my belt, I like to think that I know a thing or two about American higher education. I can give a lecture or lead a seminar, find my way through a curriculum, a syllabus, or the library stacks, and write a spiffy research article overflowing with footnotes. And I have spent enough time as an administrator and good campus citizen to know every in and out of task forces, committee meetings, public forums, faculty assemblies, student senate hearings, and other service obligations where napping with your eyes open is a crucial life skill. But from the moment I arrived at Hendrix I began to see, as I never had before, just how complex a college campus is and how many individual talents are needed to keep it functioning smoothly. So while I can draft a memo or grade a term paper with the best of them, I know next to nothing about landscape maintenance or roof repairs or keeping a salad bar stocked or coaching volleyball.

Over the next year, then, I plan to undertake some remedial education in the full range of skills, tasks, and jobs that are essential to the life of Hendrix College but seldom get the spotlight in web pages or press releases or commencement talks. Once every month I plan to "shadow" members of the College staff, spending some time to learn about them, their positions, the roles they play in our community, and those aspects of what they do that keep them coming back to work every morning. I guarantee you that I will not learn enough to bake a sheet cake or repair an internet server or operate a backhoe, but I do hope to get a fuller sense of all the individual contributions and commitment that go into making Hendrix such a special place. And I plan to share my experiences, the stories of the people I meet, and the lessons I learn here on my blog.

On June 2, my first day on the payroll at Hendrix, I spent an hour with Bruce DeLeuil, the campus carpenter. In his almost fifteen years working for the College, I suspect Bruce has touched every piece of wood and tightened every screw on campus. On this damp morning Bruce was starting his annual routine of going through every dorm room on campus, checking the drawers in the desks and bureaus, giving a once-over to the mirrors and countertops, and ensuring that the doors and hardware all worked as they should. Bruce was just the first wave of skilled staff to go through the dorms during the summer, repairing the wear and tear from one year of residents and making everything as fresh and functional as possible for the next wave of students who will arrive in August. In the carpenter's footsteps will come the air conditioning experts, the electricians, the plumbers, and the painters, the small army of craftsmen necessary to keep these buildings (some nearly a century old) comfortable and welcoming.

Bruce is a modest man, soft-spoken and of few words but with an obvious eye for detail. "It's a lot of rooms and I've handled every one of them," he told me with a quiet pride, "Every drawer, every piece, year after year after year."

I learned that students stepping up on bureau drawers to reach upper bunks are rough on the furniture. And that nail polish remover will buckle the lucite tops on vanities. And that you need to be prepared for surprises, even after the rooms have been vacated and the cleaners have done their work. In the back of one Galloway Hall cabinet Bruce discovered an article of forgotten clothing, a remarkably elaborate and colorful (ahem!) undergarment. Bruce did not blush or laugh, as I did, but kept on with his job, just remarking that he had seen worse.

To the freshmen who swarm into the residences in a couple months, all the work of Bruce and his colleagues will be invisible. But Bruce won't mind, as he hasn't for the past fourteen move-in days. "It's just the little details we gotta do to make sure things function," he says. "We just try to make it as enjoyable for the students as it can be." So when the next generation of Hendrix students steps on drawers and spills nail polish remover and leaves their unmentionables behind, Bruce will be there once again to put things right. And for that we can all be very thankful.

About Bill

William Tsutsui

Dr. William M. Tsutsui became the 11th President of Hendrix College on June 1, 2014. He came to Hendrix from Southern Methodist University where he was Dean and Professor of History at Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.