The Physical Plant and Grounds Department at the College of Charleston are responsible for the maintenance of all non-Residence Buildings and landscapes on campus. The Physical Plant, comprised of 15 shops, as well as Grounds, comprised of 15 people, have a huge presence on campus, and yet they remain anonymous to most students and faculty. Like any other profession, maintenance careers are comprised of highs and lows, accomplishments and challenges, and always a background story. The stories of every Physical Plant and Grounds employee would fill an entire magazine, but the following excerpts from the Recycling Shop, Plumbing Shop and Grounds provide some insight into the lives of those who operate behind the scenes to keep CofC running smoothly.
Carl Crews has been an advocate for environmentalism ever since his senior year of high school, in 1970, when he participated in the very first Earth Day celebration. Almost 40 years later, he works as the head of the Recycling Shop at the College of Charleston, turning an adolescent passion into a fulfilling career. He and his colleague, Jerome Smalls, are responsible for collecting recycling from every building on campus, not including Residence Halls.
“You don’t sit around much,” he said. In a typical day, Crews will drop into dozens of buildings, making him the campus’ unofficial eyes and ears. “You get a steady change of scenery and you stay above the board of what’s going on,” he said.
The Recycling Shop, which is really just a dynamic duo, does not stop on campus, though. After collecting the recycling from close to 90 buildings, Crews and Smalls drive to the recycling center on Romney Street, where they drop off the full bags. Plastic and glass recyclables are simply left at the center, but Crews and Smalls must tear open the paper and cardboard recycling bags and dump their contents.
Sheets of paper may be light, but the combined labor is hard. “When it’s 95 degrees and you’re up in the recycling plant up the road, you start sweating at 7:00 and don’t stop sweating til 3:30,” Crews said.
Despite the sweat, Crews said, “I like my part of recycling.” His job only gets bad when students and faculty throw away bottles that contain liquid. As milk from coffee cups sours and sugar from soda and tea attracts bugs, the job can become highly unpleasant, as Crews and Smalls must work despite the flies and stench.
Liquids in the recycling bins also cause problems when Crews collects the bags. “A lot of the times when you pull the bags out of the bin, they’re leaking,” despite their high price and supposed high performance. “If people would empty their beverage container out, it would be easier to maintain a clean campus.”
It is safe to say that Crews’ position is not valuable because of the money it generates for the College. The school receives only $10 per ton for mixed paper and 55 cents per pound for aluminum cans. “It’s not a money making thing,” Crews said. “It’s about doing a good deed for the community.”
Who on this campus has never experienced a Maybank toilet that seems clogged beyond all hope, only to magically use it without issue the next day? A leaking sink that is silenced overnight? The great convenience of a water bottle refill station? Or even just a sip from a water fountain?
Anyone who can relate to these situations (which, surely, is the entire student body), has a plumber to thank. Seeing as there are only six on campus responsible for all non- Residence Halls, though, they might be hard to find.
Larry Craven, the Plumbing Shop Supervisor, has been a plumber his whole life, but he has only been at the College for a few years. “I went to work for my dad,” he said. “That’s how I got started – a family owned business.”
After 41 years of the same profession, Craven has yet to dry up. “You still learn something every day,” he said. “I mean, seriously, you do.” Charleston’s historic status can complicate his profession, as well, since much of the city’s plumbing infrastructure is outdated.
The plumbing shop also faces the challenge of students who purposefully harm the infrastructure, which happens more often than the plumbing team would like. Troy Johnson, the Assistant Plumbing Shop Supervisor, said “[Students] try to stop [toilets] up. They try to make them overflow.”
Typically, this damage comes in the form of students who throw huge wads of paper in the toilet, which clogs the drain. However, sometimes the damage they must repair is not as commonplace. “One guy went to Bellsouth and pulled [a water fountain] off the wall last fall,” Craven said. Another filled a toilet tank with silica, which absorbed all of the water from the tank, taking Craven hours to fix.
However, the appreciation they receive from the campus community makes bad days worth the trouble. “I try to make sure it’s done right,” Craven said. “I try to satisfy people.” Like most people, Craven and Johnson appreciate being appreciated by others on campus. And really, what would we do if nobody on campus knew how to perform basic plumbing maintenance? We could not function.
Craven wishes that others would see his skills as more valuable. “We’re not nasty old men,” he said. “I wish [others] would think of us as more professional. I wish they would look at us as being professional instead of being looked down at.”
And really, the Plumbing Shop is full of bona fide professionals. Over half the shop has received the Master Plumbing certification, which involves years of experience and high performance on state exams. They are also certified in backflow prevention, which requires renewed certification through DHEC every three years.
Although everyone appreciates flowing pipes, low-level maintenance is only a small part of what the Plumbing Shop does every day. “It’s more than just unstopping a toilet,” Craven said. “We know a lot more than that.”
Nothing on campus is as beautiful as the Cistern Yard in springtime. Bright green shoots of young grass cover the lawn, mossy live oaks are once again full of leaves, and bushes along the perimeter are bursting with flowers. Any student who has ever marveled at this site, one of many beautiful areas on campus, can thank the Grounds Department.
The Grounds Department, a small but mighty team of 15 highly knowledgeable individuals, is responsible for all landscape maintenance on campus. In addition, they create the graduation stage every year, covering it with over 800 geraniums and other plant trimmings.
They are organized into the floral team, a group of three people who plant and maintain all flowers on campus, and two general maintenance teams of three to four people each who are responsible for trimming shrubs, caring for trees, planting new greenery, and applying mulch and fertilizer, among other responsibilities.
Their combined effort to keep the campus beautiful not only affects current students who appreciate the campus’ aesthetics, but also helps attract new students. Paty Cowden, the Grounds Supervisor, said, “What sells a lot of people on their choice of college is the appearance of the college.”
Once students get here, though, many do not show respect for the campus’ beauty. “They spend over an hour a day picking up trash,” Marlene Williams, the floral crew leader, said. Cigarette butts are especially problematic ever since the College limited smoking areas and removed cigarette disposal areas in the process.
Dog poop is another egregious offence, as some people allow their dogs to do their business without cleaning up afterward. “Not a day goes by when we don’t have poop on our feet,” a fellow groundskeeper said. “Everybody needs to carry a bag with them,” Cowden added.
Although there are days in Charleston when nothing sounds more appealing than spending the whole day outside, there are times when being outside for eight hours picking up trash and dog poop is less than enjoyable. “We have to be out here in this cold, we have to be out here in this heat,” Williams said. She and others expressed that they wished the campus community knew how hard they work.
Despite a prevailing feeling of being underappreciated, Grounds has come a long way in increasing their respect on campus and creating a more welcoming environment. Until Randy Beaver was appointed as the Director of Environmental Health and Safety, the Grounds Department was housed in the basement of Rita Hollings. “We called it ‘The Dungeon,’” said Cowden.
That space, too tiny to fit the whole crew, was also filled with mold from condensation that would form on the walls and ceilings. Roaches and rats frequently inhabited the space, as well. Their new space is a shed located on Coming St. It is much nicer than their old headquarters, and shows more respect to the workers. “We’re thrilled to have it,” Cowden said, “but all of us can’t even fit into our break room.”
Fitting into the break room is something this hard working crew definitely needs, not only to take a break from the heat and cold and for staff meetings, but also to celebrate. “I make something for everyone for their birthday,” Cowden said, which is just one reason why some groundskeepers said that the best part of their job was “the boss.”
On a campus with as much natural green space as CofC’s, it is vital that a hardworking Grounds Department maintains the beauty. “We have fun and we can get our work done,” Cowden said. “We have a good crew.”