Don’t expect George Slocum to settle in to a rocking chair anytime soon.
The Keuka College maintenance man may technically be retiring Sunday after 50 years of employment on campus but the word “retirement” is hardly in his vocabulary, let alone his character. He’s held his second job, a part-time shift cleaning the Keuka Park post office after working 7 – 3:30 daily on campus, for close to 35 years.
In fact, Slocum intends to keep his part-time job after he “retires” this weekend. He said he has plenty of projects to do on his own house, in addition to assisting his wife, Joyce, who underwent hip surgery in January. But taking it easy?
“I’ll see how my health goes,” he allows. “But yeah, if you don’t stay busy, you’ll get old in a hurry.”
Slocum does a lot of walking on the job – delivering mail and packages across campus, heading to his home on Assembly Avenue each day for lunch, and the multiple trips a handyman makes for tools and projects. But he’ll take a more imposing walk Sunday: to the front of the stage, to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at Keuka’s 103rd Commencement.
“It’s a very, very high honor for me,” said Slocum, whose formal schooling ended after graduation from Penn Yan Academy. “Back then, farm boys didn’t go to college.”
Back in April 1961, when Slocum – married, and fresh off a two-year stint for the U.S. Army – landed a job in the College facilities department, his starting rate was $1.30/hour.
After an initial summer as a groundskeeper, Slocum has worked primarily as a campus maintenance man, supervising general electrical, plumbing and interior work at three residence halls and handling all mail deliveries between the U.S. Post Office and the campus mailroom and copy center. He has seen College presidents come and go, buildings raised, renovated and/or renamed, and witnessed historic moments in Keuka and U.S. history.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on campus in 1963, Slocum remembers well the many tents pitched where Lightner Library now sits, helping shelter the large crowds, including many who had come from Rochester to hear King speak. He remembers the security detail too: two or three police vehicles just off of Route 54A, monitoring the main entrance to campus, and “two or three deputies up on Hegeman (Hall) roof, just in case. It was scary times in the country.”
While Slocum can’t recall exact specifics of Dr. King’s speech on campus, he said he was struck by King’s eloquence. He almost had a closer brush with the civil rights leader.
“I was supposed to drive him to the airport, but some faculty member stepped up and drove him instead,” Slocum said.
Like many Americans of his generation, Slocum remembers exactly where he was later that year when he learned President Kennedy had been assassinated: on one of Ball Hall’s upper floors, with two other handymen, working while the students were off on Thanksgiving Break.
“We were painting woodwork and of course, we had a radio with us. We heard the announcement about the President and everybody quit working and sat down, to see what would happen and see what they would say next,” Slocum recalled. “It was very scary at the time.
“They closed the College, lowered the flag to half-mast, and on the day of his funeral, they gave everyone the day off to sit and watch it at home. It was a sad time for our country.”
But there’s been plenty of humor sprinkled throughout the years, too. In his early years, Keuka was home to about 400 students, and strictly an all-girls institution.
“Anytime a maintenance man entered a (residence) hall, he had to holler, ‘Man on the floor’ and then all the girls would holler back, ‘Where, Where? We gotta see who it is,’” Slocum recalled with a chuckle.
He’s lost count of the number of contact lenses he has been called to retrieve from sink or shower drains. He’s rescued a few diamond rings too, the most recent one about a year ago, passed down to a girl in Harrington Hall from her mother.
“Luckily, it was there in the trap – it’s generally there if they don’t run the water,” he said.
Part of Slocum’s mail route duties included delivering packages for students and professors directly to their doors, Slocum said, describing the warm welcome he’d usually receive – that is, unless the delivery happened to interrupt a class in session.
In 1985, under the direction of then-President Dr. Arthur Kirk Jr., the College went co-ed. Slocum remembers being called to a special meeting Kirk held with faculty and staff, amid public speculation of the school’s dire financial straits.
“He told us how bad off the college was and said, ‘Things are going to change and change fast and a lot of people might not like it.’ He announced they were going to go co-ed. Most people stayed. We went two or three years without raises, but we didn’t mind, ‘cause you still had a job.”
According to Rick Becker, trades manager and Slocum’s direct supervisor, the love Slocum has for the campus and its students shows.
“Year after year, the students and resident housing staff – they all just love George,” Becker said. “They adore him and he takes good care of ‘em. He’s definitely the kind of guy we should all grow up to be someday.”
A tall man with a soft voice and quiet manner, Slocum is one of the few staffers about the same height as current College President Joseph G. Burke, who is also retiring this summer. Earlier this semester, Burke recognized Slocum with a special gift, presented before the Community Day gathering of faculty and staff, and announced that Slocum would receive an honorary degree.
Recognizing employees like Slocum is a pleasure, Burke said, especially because he’s never asked for it.
“He does his job very quietly, very effectively, very diligently – he’s hard working and he’s trying to serve others in the campus community. He’s somebody in the organization that may not be at the top but helps create a keen appreciation of what our college is all about. George is the epitome of that kind of person,” Burke said, adding that Slocum represents many other staffers who quietly do their jobs, come in early and stay late at night.
“He’s having a hard time dealing with all this,” Burke continued. “He doesn’t talk a lot, he’s a man of few words and that’s the kind of person I want to recognize and the students want to recognize. The students just love him, he helps everybody and he always has a smile on his face.”
Burke said that during his tenure, he has sought to understand the deep history of Keuka College in order to pass it on to students and staff. Not only is Slocum “like a walking history book,” Burke said, but he portrays a value sometimes lost in today’s America: sticking with a long-term commitment over time.
“He’s served under nine presidents and I’m just one small cog in this wheel,” Burke said. “Presidents come and go, but people like George stay here. Very few of us will ever stay at this college for 50 years. We’re not going to see another George Slocum for a long time.”
The respect Slocum has for Burke is evident, too.
“The greatest thing I’ve seen with Dr. Burke is the restoring of Ball Hall,” stated Slocum, referring to the original campus building, which dates back to 1890. “They had planned on tearing it down and it’s just a great thrill to see it come back and end up with what we’ve got today. I did help contribute towards it. They put me in charge of asking members of the facility plant for money, which I did, because I knew it would help the College. I even spoke to my church about it and they put money in.
“’Course, I don’t get to work in it,” Slocum adds with a smile.
Slocum has spent most of his indoor work in Blyley, Space and Saunders Halls, the latter built in his first years here. In all, he’s seen 10 buildings built or re-built, worked under 10 facility managers who served under six business managers, and nine presidents (including interim presidents).
“I always thought it was a great pleasure to see the freshman class come in the fall and four years later, march down and get their diplomas,” Slocum said, adding that he can’t recall a single rainout on graduation day. “They used to put up tents, great big tents, but since we’ve been outdoors, maybe it sprinkled a little in the morning and you just wiped the seats off and all.
“This’ll be the first year in 50 years that I haven’t helped set up the chairs, but I won’t have time. The president wants me to be at the baccalaureate service,” he explained.
Burke laughed, recalling their conversation. Burke himself tries to make a point of heading to the lawn to lend a hand in setting up the chairs for commencement.
“I told George ‘When I go out there at six in the morning, I don’t want to see you there – this is your day to enjoy.’ But he’s the kind of person – I bet I might still see him out there,” Burke said.
Slocum is nervous about the brief acceptance speech he was asked to give at Commencement, however, he said he was looking forward to receiving his degree from Dana Schillinger, a personal friend and member of the College’s governing board.
Slocum’s youngest daughter, Jennifer, is a Keuka alumna, along with his oldest granddaughter, April. They will be among the 18 family members who will attend the ceremony. Another granddaughter, Maggie, participates in the College’s D.R.I.V.E. program (Diversity, Responsibility, Inclusion, Vision and Experiential Learning) for young adults with learning disabilities. D.R.I.V.E. is a collaboration between the College, Penn Yan Central School District, and Yates County ARC.
“She sees me and no matter where it is on campus, she comes running and gives me a hug. I’m her idol,” Slocum said.
She’s not the only one who’s impressed.
“He’s had a second job for 35 years – 35 years!” exclaimed Dennis Hoins, director of facilities. “With his dedication, he’s been an inspiration to the younger folks in the department. He’s just a good old guy – just a good person with a good heart.”
At the facility plant Tuesday, Becker pulled out a tape measure and showed Hoins and Slocum he’d notched off 50 inches, one for each year of Slocum’s service to Keuka. One gets the sense that Slocum isn’t impressed by gold watches. Besides, an honorary degree tops a gold watch any day.
“It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’ve learned a lot from my coworkers and the students too,” Slocum said. “Most people don’t even keep one job more than 20 years at the most, but when you love what you’re doing, that’s the important thing.”