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IU Northwest News

‘Tis the season of snow days

Meet 35-year IU Northwest veteran Tim Johnson, who spends your snow day cleaning up the campus

Friday Dec 12, 2014

For most of the Indiana University Northwest campus community, being awakened by an early morning “IU Notify” call announcing a campus closure after a significant snowfall is a sound of bliss – the proclamation of a snow day, or at least a work-from-home day.

Whatever the case, it’s fair to say the reaction is a collective sigh of relief after being spared a treacherous trek to campus. But for Tim Johnson, IU Northwest grounds maintenance supervisor, he’s likely already beat the snow into work by that point and is pausing to refill his coffee while taking in the sunrise over the freshly blanketed campus.

“For us, it starts with a call from the IUPD, or by watching the news,” Johnson explains. “If I see that we’ve got a significant amount coming, then I pre-arrange and ask the staff if they can report. But if it’s a ‘surprise,’ then IUPD notifies me -- usually at about 3 a.m.”

Last winter’s fury caused IU Northwest to close its campus four times, close early on two days and open late once. Ready for this season, the Physical Plant has at the ready 40 shovels, 90 tons of rock salt, six trucks with snow plows, five sidewalk vehicles, and a list of nearly 20 employees from other areas of the Physical Plant staff who have agreed to be called in should the need arise.

“The beginning of the winter is the hardest part because you have to get adjusted to it,” Johnson said. “You have to get the staff and everybody orchestrated. Once you get that routine solved, then you just kind of roll with winter, I guess you could say.”

The small industrial building on the east side of Broadway Avenue in Gary is the Physical Plant’s home base, a warehouse of equipment dotted with a few break rooms and supervisor offices. In the wee hours of snow-filled mornings, it’s a warm and bustling safe haven for the full crew. Like any profession that experiences an anticipated crunch time -- a retailer on Black Friday or an accountant during tax season – Johnson and his staff expect and prepare for a tiring shift when Mother Nature buries the campus, with or without a campus closure to assist their cleanup efforts.

“Having good equipment helps,” said Johnson, appreciative of the strong heaters in the plows and trucks. “Of course sooner or later you have to get out and do the manual labor, which is the shoveling. We have a few snow blowers too. Once we get campus cleared and we feel comfortable (with the job we’ve done), we can break off and do other things like salting.”

Last winter, when the snow days included one two-day stretch, Johnson and his team worked around the clock.

“I felt really good because we were on top of it,” he recalled. “We had police agencies from Lake County and we had state police in our parking lots because we were a safe haven. When you see other municipalities using your parking lots because they are among the few places that are clear, that is a good sign.”

While winter and snow removal are foremost on everyone’s minds right now, it is also notable that Johnson is largely due the credit for the colorful beds of flowers that beautify the campus in the spring and summer. Through trial and error, Johnson has developed quite a green thumb over the years. He beams at compliments about how well the greenery he chooses pairs together.

Johnson came to IU Northwest as a custodial employee in 1980. It was a position he began immediately after graduating from Portage High School, referred by his father-in-law. The second floor of now-demolished Tamarack Hall was his first assignment. About five years of custodial work led to another five years in maintenance and a few years in maintaining the grounds before he became the grounds supervisor.

Though he was raised in Valparaiso, the son of a lifelong steelworker, Johnson was born in Gary and, as an IU Northwest employee, has spent much of his life working in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus.

 “We have a lot of black-and-white pictures of downtown Gary in its heyday,” he said.

Definitely of the “outdoorsy” variety, Johnson spends much of his time traveling to beautiful U.S. vacation spots where he does a lot of camping and photography. 

When he’s not photographing wildlife and beautiful scenery, like the covered bridges that adorn his office walls, he’s appreciating beauty that others might not see, like that of a well-kept campus.

“Right before school starts, usually toward the end of August, when we are out in the parking lots and painting the curbs and stuff, usually early in the morning and the sun is coming up over the horizon, it’s just beautiful,” Johnson said. “And I have been here late in the evening when the moon is full … we have a lot of beauty here.”

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