Ivory Towers

Sheryll Betts is still trying to deal with the wad of toilet paper left behind by someone she may never meet. It is 5:45 a.m. on a Friday, a payday.

If she can get a pair of urinals ready for the onslaught of students soon to fill the Cook Library she can move on to the library computer lab, which she says is her daily challenge thanks to the debris from a Starbucks next door. After that, she can go to lunch, scrub a mile of glass windows and go home with her check.

For now, the problem is a men’s restroom, typically a disaster by the time she gets to work around 5 a.m. Someone has stuffed the urinals high with tissue from a nearby stall.
“Who knows why,” she says, smiling, sweat on her brow. She’s been working as a custodian with the University of Southern Mississippi for three years, so the time to complain is long over. She just scrubs.

Betts is one of about 100 custodians at Southern Miss. The number fluctuates, as some people do not hang around for long, and some stay at it for decades. They are part of the more than 200 people who are clustered together as the Southern Miss Physical Plant, a group of blue-collar men and women – plumbers, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, gardeners – who keep the ivory tower standing by getting dirty when they work.

The custodians meet across from Southern Miss in a building separated from campus by Fourth Street. Each morning, Gordy Powell, the custodial services supervisor, begins preparing for them at 4 a.m.

“We make every attempt to keep out of view,” Powell says of his staff, a group he manages with a saintly kindness and a gentle voice. His attempts are successful, as most of the students and faculty who fill the university’s trashcans and toilets barely offer his crew a glance throughout the day.

It is a position becoming of Powell, a 52-year-old former counselor. He earned his master’s degree at Southern Miss years ago and worked in the psychology business until he says he “burned out on it, burned to a crisp.”

Turning his back on the white-collar world six years ago, Powell found himself scrubbing toilets in the same buildings where he once took notes. Eventually, he worked his way up to supervisor, a job he loves because he has “an allergic reaction to grandiosity.”

He refers to his employees as “my babies” as he makes his rounds just before 7 a.m. to inspect their efforts. He talks to them about their families and their problems in between scrutinizing a broken hand dryer and wiping a finger along the floor to judge the work of the night shift. As he walks through a few of the 86 buildings under his responsibility, Powell points into hallways and classrooms remembering notable incidents. Besides leaving behind soft drinks and candy wrappers, people sometimes urinate and defecate in classrooms and in trashcans. “People do all sorts of passive aggressive things in an attempt to protest the university or a professor,” Powell says. “They don’t realize they are just punishing some sweet lady. The administration will never even know about it.”

One of those ladies might be Mary Griffin, 45, who has been working as a custodian for 21 years and has her eye on state retirement.

Until then, she will continue to be responsible not only for her staff of 12 as a foreman, but also helping direct the cleanup after Southern Miss football home games to ensure Sunday churchgoers are free from eyesores.

In that effort, for the last eight years she has directed the cadets of Youth Challenge, a program for troubled youth and high school drop-outs based at Camp Shelby.

“I love the job,” Griffin says, although she shares everyone’s dread of getting up at 3 a.m. and the seasonal cleanup work at the stadium. “I get here early and get off early, so I have time to do things I want to after work.”

As the first joggers appear in the headlights of Powell’s golf cart, as he finishes his daily inspection, he points to Kennard Washington hall explaining how there are people spraying inside for fleas.

“We also handle pest control,” Powell says. “As long as people keep feeding and watering the wild cats, the fleas will keep coming back, and we’ll get complaints, and we’ll keep spraying.”

Southern Miss Custodial Services is totally tuition-funded, a fact Powell and his foremen consider when they go to work. They see what they do as a service to students. Faculty and staff come second, always. Still, each morning, complaints and grievances are waiting, and they rarely come from students.

According to Powell’s boss, Physical Plant Director Rusty Postlewate, part of being invisible is never being thanked until something goes wrong or someone needs a special favor.

“Most of what we do is something that’s taken for granted,” says Postlewate, a stately man with a crisp shirt and tie, a man who could be mistaken for a general or a congressman, which speaks to his history in the Army Corps of Engineers. He manages those who replace lights and plant roses, vacuum classrooms and paint walls.

“People come everyday assuming the lights are going to be on, the place is going to be comfortable, and things are going to work. That’s the expectation. That’s the norm. A great day for me is a day with no complaints. You’re not going to get compliments.”

Postlewate equates his responsibilities with those of the school’s computer technicians, cafeteria workers and residence hall housekeepers. If they are doing their jobs well, they go unnoticed.

According to Postlewate, he lives in two worlds. As a supervisor, he must understand the work and direct the physical labor of 200 employees. As an administrator, he must manage the physical plant’s $8 million budget behind a desk littered with paperwork.

“I got a note this morning. They want to have the fountain run pink water for Breast Cancer Awareness Week,” Postlewate says, noting he already has plumbers investigating how to do so without permanently staining the fountain in front of the Administration Building.

“They want to have a pink pig race, so they want to have an area cordoned off. We get calls for everything, but we’ll get it pink.”