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Battling a monumental foe: the unsung heroes of snow removal

It’s midnight on the Wheaton College campus. Dark, bulky figures trudge through furious whorls of snow, shovels in hand. Though the snow is blinding and the temperatures have dropped below freezing, these men will continue to work through the night. Many of them will not be returning to their homes for several days. The battle against the fury of Mother Nature continues.

In the face of this year’s historic storms and snowfalls, the grounds crew at Wheaton College has taken on the monumental task of keeping the campus safe and clear. The Grounds Manager, Steve Kelly, has worked in snow removal for thirty-five years and has never experienced weather conditions the recent storms have presented during his time at the college.

“Snow removal is a major undertaking,” said Kelly, “And when you’re having a winter like we are experiencing now, it’s unprecedented. It’s awful.”

Currently, there are eighteen staff members working on the snow removal project, thirteen workers from the grounds crew and five workers from the carpenter shop. Together, they are responsible for ten plow routes and six shoveling routes, which include every entrance and stairway of every building and house on campus.

“Snow removal is the most difficult job function that we do, by far,” Kelly said. “It’s very taxing on the men and the equipment.”

In less than three weeks, over six feet of snow has accumulated on campus. During this time, the members of the grounds crew have been working tirelessly, day and night.

“Right now, emotionally, they’re really taxed,” said Kelly. “Physically, obviously, they’re sore and tired but, emotionally, it beats you up as well.”

The hours that the crew has been putting in are highly irregular. During these storm events, the campus becomes completely socked in, meaning that the crew is forced to stay overnight at the college. Over the past two weeks, the grounds workers have spent several nights sleeping on the floors of empty offices and on blowup mattresses in the Physical Plant.

“We don’t get much sleep,” said Kelly. “We get wired up. We get so focused on what we need to do. It’s like fighting a battle, is what it really is.”

In the face of both emotional and physical exhaustion, the grounds employees have remained vigilant and uncomplaining in their task. Their unrelenting efforts have been essential to keeping Wheaton safe and functional this winter.

“I’m proud of all the guys,” Kelly said. “Nobody does a better job than them. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and we are really fortunate to have the staff that we do.”

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed by the campus community. Already, there have been several formal and informal efforts made by the staff and students to thank them for their hard work. In addition to various compliments and acts of kindness from students, President Dennis Hanno organized a luncheon for the snow crew on Monday, February 9th.

“President Hanno thanked all of the guys for all their hard work and told them how much he appreciated everything, and that really goes a long way,” said Kelly. “We have never had a president who did that before. The guys really appreciated that.”

These acts of appreciation and kindness have had a significant, positive effect on the morale of everyone involved in the snow removal project, a project that is far from over. As the campus prepares for yet another storm, Kelly advises both staff and students to observe caution.

“People need to be careful walking about,” said Kelly. “The last thing we want is for someone to slip and fall and get injured. And that can happen, no matter how hard you try.”

Though this winter has been grueling, and will continue to pose challenges, Kelly is already looking ahead to the preparations for commencement. Unlike the tedious repetition of snow removal, he looks forward to the satisfaction that comes from simply making the campus a little more beautiful.

“We’ll get through it,” he said. “Spring will come eventually.”