After 50 years, the Woody/Shales building of the LaFollette Complex is being retired, but 59 year old custodian Jerry Coates, who has worked in the complex since 1999, is still four or five years away from retiring himself.
Coates began as an aspiring chief, but soon moved into custodial services. For him, losing Woody/Shales is more than just another change.
“I love progress, because even for what this building is there’s no air conditioning, there is no amenities and you have to have that for these kids.” Coates said. “So I accept the changes but it’s just the idea that with that tower it’s a piece of history.”
Because Woody/Shales is being torn down, a “bump” is happening in the custodial staff. Typically, when a job opens up it is bid on by custodians wishing to relocate. When a custodian fills the job, it is called a “jump”. Before jumping, however, the custodian must remain at their current building for three to four weeks so that the job they are moving out of can be filled.
During a bump, however, jobs that would normally be bid on are held open for the custodians of the shutdown building.
“What we’re doing is actually asking people to do a little bit more to leave these open so when the bump occurs everyone has a job when it's over with, no one gets laid off,” George Edwards, associate director of facilities, said.
When Coates was asked where he would like to be bumped, he chose Knotts/Edwards, another building in the LaFollette complex.
“Most of the people that were bumped in this building stayed in this building,” Edwards said. “You know I always say, ‘would you rather go to an air conditioning building versus a non-air conditioning building,’ but that really doesn't make any difference to them.
“They like the friendships they’ve developed here and they like the students that they work with in this building.”
Coates is more than content staying in LaFollette, in fact he doesn’t think he will ever leave the building. He enjoys the routine that comes with working in the complex and feels that being able to depend on how the job will remain essentially the same is one of LaFollette’s biggest assets, something that he hopes to continue in Knotts/Edwards even with the loss of Woody/Shales.
Coates soon found that being a custodian in LaFollette was much more than a job, guided and mentored by fellow employee Greg Hobson.
“He taught me a lot as a human being,” Coates said. “Forget the job, he taught me humility and he taught me how to be patient.”
Hobson wasn’t given a special job title, but he was still regarded as a leader, even though he was quiet and didn’t want any credit for his work.
“He never pressed anybody,” Coates said. “He would come to you, ‘I’m not your boss now, I’m not trying to be your boss but listen if you do this this way, it might be a little easier on you,’ and of course it always was.”
He taught the staff to be there to listen to students, make them as comfortable and be personable, he also taught along with certain cleaning techniques.
Coates would always leave on Friday evenings by exchanging a “see you Monday” with Hobson, so what happened over one weekend didn’t seem real until he returned to work the next week. On a snowy Sunday, Hobson overexerted himself shoveling the driveways of his elderly neighbors and was killed unexpectedly by a brain aneurysm.
The Monday after Hobson had passed, Coates went to his locker and began to cry. Almost immediately, however, he was approached by two coworkers who extended their arms and told him it was alright to let out his emotions, that they were there for him.
Coates has always compared the custodial staff to a family, so when they lost a member he was touched to see them take care of him just like family would.
“The way we picked up together as a family let you know that no matter what happens here there is always somebody with a hug or a smile or a positive word or something to help you get through.” Coates said. “At 59 years old and having worked 50 years of my life, I can truly say that I’ve never worked anywhere besides here where I consider it a family.”
As work continued after Hobson’s death, Tammy Rhoades, supervisor of custodial services, noticed that people began regarding Coates similarly to the way Hobson was regarded. Now other custodians tend to turn to Coates and ask them for his opinion on how to do certain jobs.
“I think they do for what I got from Greg, especially in the summertime,” Coates said. “They come to me and they, ‘Jerry what do you think?’ ‘Well let me tell you how Greg did it,’ and that’s what they get and that’s what they’re gonna get ‘till the day I leave, ‘this is how Greg did it.’”
Coates regards his friends as his “absolute positive favorite part” of his job, but he also enjoys watching the students around him grow and change, both personally and as a group.
As with every student who comes to college, it takes time to feel comfortable being on your own and Coates realizes that how he treats the students has an impact, especially on freshman.
“By the end of the year it’s so great to see them and they’ve grown up.” Coates said. “In a way it's partially because of us because we’re here to look out for them, not to tell them what to do or try to run their life, but to create that comfort level for them just like being at home.”
Because of his relationships with students, Coates is able to look back with fond memories of students from each year that he has worked in LaFollette. He remembers some students for their pranks, like the year that a student placed Easter Eggs outside dorm rooms with a note that told the student they had won a prize and must retrieve it from the front desk.
Other students he remembers for their talents. In the first few years of working as a custodian at LaFollette, Coates and other custodians took their lunch break in the lounge area of the sixth floor and students would come by and sing and dance for them while they ate. The memory of those times still makes Coates laugh to this day.
He just hopes that his impact will stay with the students as well.
“We like to think that from that point in time on that 6th floor, from those goofy kids coming in and singing and dancing, that there are going to be kids that are going to be famous and they are going to remember us,” Coates said.
Something that he remembers about every single student, regardless of their personality or appearance.
“Every child is always respectful, and maybe that’s a strange thing,” Coates said.
He did note, however, that the biggest change he has noticed in groups of students is their attitude toward school. While never being disrespectful toward him, he does remember that the students in his early years of working at LaFollette were a lot louder and messier than the kids he works with today.
“To be honest, the average student now is more mature, more professional, more quiet,” Coates said. “You see the kids and they’re always friendly but they’re always focused. They’re out the room, down the hall, start their day and handle their business.”
Coates feels that the difference in the difficulty of college now compared to even fifteen years ago probably has something to do with the change in student’s behavior, but regardless of the student he is always looking to make them feel at home.
Though the building has changed due to renovations and social changes, Coates has always wanted to continue working in LaFollette. He can recall times when smoking was allowed, or when students would frequently use telephone booths in the hallways instead of using a smartphone.
But, throughout all the changes Coates has seen in the past 18 years, he has not once wanted to leave.
Even though Woody/Shales will be gone come next school year, Coates feels that it is more than just a pleasant memory.
“They can tear the building down but the ghosts are still there,” Coates said. “The history is still there.”
LaFollette begins its deconstruction on June 5, Coates will continue to work within the buildings walls.
He will miss working in one of the oldest parts of campus and seeing parents being able to take their children to the dorms that they lived in, but Woody/Shales will always remain a special part of Ball State to Coates as well as others who’ve lived and worked there.