Husband and wife Joe and Phyllis Williams have been UI building service workers for 20 and 23 years, respectively. He works in eight different buildings, mainly for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, while Phyllis works to keep Krannert Art Museum neat and clean. They live in a 78-year-old craftsman-style home on Urbana's Main Street with four cats. Marks on their kitchen wall note Joe's height, as well as the heights of Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire. When they're not rooting for the Bulls or Cardinals, they refinish furniture, pour "sweat equity" into their home, and look for bargains at auctions. She is on the Urbana Planning Commission and together they have a motor carrier route for The News-Gazette.
What does it mean to be a building service worker?
Phyllis: It seems like an amazingly simple thing to do and yet it's not. Over the years, the amount of area that we've taken care of has grown incredibly. In 20 years it's more than doubled. And you really have to do a lot of juggling. What you find is instead of the image of the idiot mop-flopper it really takes a pretty good work manager, to go over the job and not just keep an area clean, but keep the people in those places happy too.
Phyllis, you have a bachelor's degree from the UI?
Phyllis: Yes, in history. There's no future in it. (She laughed.) I went back to school because it was unfinished business. I put 20 years between my sophomore and junior years. It was wonderful -- once I got over the first day of class. I had a girl in one of my classes say, 'Oh it's so great when you old people come back to school!' So it's scary at first but then you settle in and you kick their young butts academically.
How did you do it? And why haven't you used the degree?
Phyllis: I worked from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. and took three classes a semester. I graduated in 1995. I had made good grades, but graduate school wasn't an option, so it was mainly a sense of accomplishment. I'm the first person in my family to have a college degree. And I feel like I'm a better cleaning lady because I have that.
And we both went to school. Everything I read, Joe read.
Joe: Oh yeah, I read all of her books. They were fun.
Phyllis: We just had all kinds of interesting things to talk about.
Joe: I really like the Roman and Greek history and all that. Phyllis was more interested in Russian history.
Phyllis: I had some history professors that were just wonderful. We just met everybody, went to history parties, and just talked to folks.
What do you do when you're not working?
Phyllis: We just got a computer in January so we're online now. We joined the '90s just before it was too late. We don't want to do anything too fast. We said for years 'Why would anyone want a computer at home?' and we lived like Quakers and then all of a sudden we've gotten modern. (She points to workers installing air conditioning in their home.) Air conditioning and a computer all in the same year! We also are avid birdwatchers and gardeners. I grow the best tomatoes in Champaign County.
Joe, do people tell you that you look like someone?
Joe: Who do they say I look like? (He asks Phyllis.) Oh yeah, William Hurt.
Phyllis: When we got married we went to Chicago on our honeymoon and we went to Marshall Field's for lunch in the Walnut Room. I held our place in line while Joe ran an errand. I'm standing in line behind two women and all of a sudden they shout, 'Oh my God! It's Norm Abram!' And I'm asking, 'Where? Where?' And it turns out it was Joe.
Joe: I was probably wearing a plaid shirt. (He shrugged.) I hear that a lot too.
So do you build furniture like Norm the Master Carpenter?
Joe: It's more refinishing old seemingly hopeless pieces than building new ones. Usually I reglue loose joints and strip off paint, trying to make it look better.
Phyllis: He also upholsters furniture.
Joe: I've done a few projects, mainly just simple things. But if it needs work, I'll try to fix it.
Do you like your jobs at the UI?
Joe: Oh yes, mainly because of the people you see there. The work is fairly routine once you get used to it, but office occupants and others in the area get used to seeing you and you find out what's happening in their lives and they find out what's happening in yours. We have formed several friendships away from work with the people we clean for.
Phyllis: You really become valued as part of that workplace. Joe and I really do feel a sense of loyalty to our people.
Do you call yourselves janitors?
Phyllis: I call myself a cleaning lady. I know it seems a bit old-fashioned, but you know the cleaning lady knows everything. (She laughs.) There is a certain routine to it and a certain talent that's required because there is a lot that's not routine in things that come up. You need to be flexible when you work for people. You need to be smart and tuned in to what's going on. Help has to be helpful to the departments. And we are the face of O&M [Operation and Maintenance Division] for our people, so we sell a whole department.
And it's a good job. We don't come home and cry because of what we do all day. In fact, we come home and laugh about some of the idiotic things that go on.
We're not just the mop floppers. We're professionals in a workplace, well-rounded human beings.
And just the other day, we were waiting to punch the time clock with eight to 10 BSWs, talking about sending jokes out on e-mail or some problem with the memory on our home computers. And I thought, Wow! Janitors and computers. This is great! It's just wonderful as a matter of fact.