A surfeit of machinery and parts clog the doorways and sprawl across the shelves, the desk and seemingly every surface of Steven Fay’s office in the Veterinary Medicine Basic Sciences building. When steam sterilizers, imaging equipment and other research tools go on the blink, they wind up in the hands of Fay, the facilities manager in veterinary pathobiology, or his staff. With a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Northern Illinois University and an aptitude for mechanics (“I’ve been tinkering with engines since I was 10 years old,” Fay said), this easygoing guy who once aspired to be a high-school auto mechanics teacher and once operated his own repair business has found his niche coordinating the repair and maintenance of the myriad machines within the college. Fay’s outstanding work earned him the Dr. Robert and Lucy Graham Award in 1996 and the Academic Professional Excellence Award in 2001.
Tell me about your educational background and your career here at the university.
I like to tell people that I graduated magna cum laude from Northern Illinois University in 1985, and my first position was as a junior high school janitor. After working in a lab at Northern Illinois University for a year and a half, I transferred down here in June 1988 to work as a molecular parasitologist on a malaria project.
I had sort of developed a handyman reputation here within the college and was hired to replace a retiring handyman. I set up an electronics repair shop to repair research equipment. I’ve gone on to become a facilities manager with a research orientation. I continue to be involved in day-to-day repair activities as well as overseeing some major projects, like the completion of the Veterinary Medicine Basic Sciences building. I developed the original design. It’s about a $4 million project that is half funded by the National Institutes of Health and is adding 14,000 square feet of lab and office space.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
That I get to do so many different things, work with so many different people and get to feel like I’m helping them accomplish their research.
What is a typical day like for you?
I come in the door and before I can even get my computer turned on somebody will come running in saying, “Steve! Steve! Steve! We’ve been looking for you. Our incubator isn’t working right. Please come take a look.” I promise that I’ll be there in a few seconds, but before I can get there somebody else has nabbed me in the hallway to ask me about a problem they’re having with their centrifuge, and soon I’ve forgotten all about the problem with the incubator. Then my pager goes off because I’ve forgotten that I’m supposed to be in a meeting. I consider it a victory if I go home with fewer things to do than when I came in.
What’s the most challenging part of what you do?
Trying to stay organized. I take these tasks on cheerfully but trying to keep track of all the promises I’ve made and trying to meet everyone’s needs is a tremendous responsibility. It’s not uncommon for me and my main electronics technician, Dave Stoppkotte, to have over 100 items on our to-do lists.
One of the accomplishments I’m proudest of is that I developed a model program to comply with the university’s annual certification requirements for biological safety cabinet hoods. While it may seem mundane, it’s a big part of safety and research standards compliance.
What are your hobbies?
I am restoring a 1966 GMC Suburban – completely rebuilding the body and replacing the engine, transmission and all the electricals. I’ve always worked on cars but this is the most extensive restoration I’ve ever done.
I have played bass guitar and sung professionally for years, particularly in Chicago-based bands. I play music every day, including today before I came to work: blues, country, funk, early rock and roll.
I developed an appreciation for music early on. When I was 13 years old, my mother absolutely humiliated me by making me join the junior high school choir and take dance lessons. I thought I’d never survive but now I’m so happy she did it.
I bike five miles round trip getting to and from work each day. I have a mountain bike for bad weather and a Peugeot racing bike for good weather. I also love to read: Kurt Vonnegut, Graham Greene, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, John Steinbeck.