Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kalamazoo College's "Busiest Guy on Campus"

Rob Townsend refers to the day Kalamazoo College hired him as “the sweetest day.” It was Valentine’s Day of 1980 and he came to the school as a sanitary engineer, he says, which is a fancy term for custodian. After six months he moved up the ranks to grounds maintenance, and twelve years into the job he started working on his prized project: the recycling program.

At the time, the newly formed environmental student group EnvOrg wanted to start up a recycling system on campus. Rob says one of his bosses asked him if he would take on the job.  He asked for some time to think it over, but took the job a couple of days later. “[My boss] thought that I was just going to go pick up paper. No, I had a long-term goal and, as you see, where we’re at—that’s my long-term goal,” Rob says.

He has come a long way from his early years, when the educational administration in Kalamazoo said he most likely would not graduate high school. Rob was born deaf. A car accident during his mother’s pregnancy left him with undeveloped hairs in his inner ear, which have a crucial function in the process of hearing. 

It took his parents a while to realize it. By the time he was 18 months, however, they noticed he didn’t respond when they called out to him. They took him in for testing and learned he had impaired hearing.

“I did not go to kindergarten or preschool like most kids do; I went to college,” Rob says. “I went to George Washington University at 18 months old to learn lip reading, identifying sounds, speech.” At the time he lived in Washington, DC. His family moved to Ohio a couple of years later because of his dad’s job in the Air Force. There, he went to Ohio State. By the time the family moved to England, Rob was ready to start elementary school.

He had no trouble in the classroom overseas learning to write and read with other kids who were not hearing impaired. Rob had hearing aids to help him function in a verbal setting. He and his family moved to Kalamazoo permanently after his dad retired from the Air Force and, there, Rob began to have some trouble in school

His second grade teacher liked to focus on kids she identified as gifted, Rob says. She did not know what to do with a hearing-impaired student. Rob began to struggle in class and she recommended he go to a school for children with disabilities, where he repeated second grade.

His parents spent four years fighting with the school board to put him back in the regular school system. When they succeeded, Rob had to repeat fourth grade, putting him two years behind his peers. This is when he was told he would most likely never graduate.

Rob proved the system wrong, earning enough credits to graduate high school a semester early but opting to stay and spend time with his friends. He started at Western Michigan University a week after graduation, and eventually moved to Kalamazoo Valley Community College where he could be in smaller classes.

The upside to Rob’s stint in the school for students with disabilities came years later, when he decided to attend a school reunion. “I kind of was looking around and all of a sudden there’s these little sparkling eyes,” he says. “I noticed this one girl, this one gal kept looking at me.” He started dating the woman, Jenifer, soon after and they eventually married.

Rob comes from a big family—he’s the youngest of five brothers. “I think that’s part of the reason why my job is sort of related to recycling,” he says. “I got a lot of hand-me-down clothes, hand-me-down toys, so I’m accustomed to it. I’m not real picky about brand new stuff.”

Some of Rob’s duties directly involve hand me downs. He runs the Resource Exchange Program, a collection of discarded objects to be handed down to new students. People dispose of products no longer useful to them—from academic tools, to kitchen utensils, to lamps—and other students can peruse the storage room and take things they need for free.

Rob also works on recycling-related programs off campus. He started a composting initiative at the College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum, just over 10 minutes west of the campus. Right now he composts yard waste, but he hopes to one day incorporate food waste into the mix.

Rob collects bins full of the cafeteria’s leftovers several times throughout the week. Currently he takes them to a farm about 20 minutes from the College called Lake Village Homestead. Rob drives onto a field and dumps the food into a pile for eager pigs. “They’ve got the best meal plan,” he says.

Moving food to the composting site would save Rob time and fuel, concentrating both tasks in the same place. Rob also takes issue with the fact that using the current system, he says, the school pays the farm to take its leftovers. “I totally disagree with that,” Rob says. “The way I see it is we’re helping them decrease the cost of the food they need to feed their livestock.” This situation frustrated him enough that he started looking into ways to add food into the arboretum composting mix.

Rob does not anger easily. His wife, who is also hearing impaired, speaks American Sign Language. This has taught him to be patient during disagreements. “I don’t know how to argue with my hands,” he says. He has a general philosophy of taking things as they come. Negative dispute, he says, “is a waste of my time and energy.”

His attitude carries over to his job. Rob has a special system for categorizing problems. He breaks them down into the good, the bad and the ugly. “If it’s good, leave it alone. You’re happy with it,” he says. Bad things, he says, can be good or ugly. They are things you still want to work on, things that could eventually be made good. Ugly things are not worthy of time and energy. “Get rid of it. End of story,” says Rob.

Rob hopes to stick around at the recycling program for another five or six years, health permitting. He was recently diagnosed with stage one non-Hodgkin follicular lymphoma. It is a slow growing cancer, he says, and he does not currently have to undergo treatment. However he was also told that it can be treated, but not cured. The diagnosis has inspired him to listen to his body more, he says. He has let go of some responsibilities, namely retiring from the LandSea program, an outdoor orientation for first-year students entering into the College.

He hopes the summer will give him a bit of a break too. He will be working on a variety of projects, from revamping recycling bins to organizing an annual furniture sale that benefits the recycling program. He will have a staff of 15 people helping out with the projects, 10 of whom have worked recycling before, he says. Their knowledge will make it easier for him to run the program over the academic break.

“There are days where I feel crappy and I just don’t feel like I want to come in,” he says. “But you know, it’s kind of hard for me [because] I’m so dedicated to K College.” Rob hopes to take a month off at some point to visit as many of the 59 state parks as he can with his wife, but otherwise he plans to stick around. “I am very optimistic about it; I’m a fighter,” he says. “I am determined to try to beat this thing. So I got time. I got time.”


  1. Maggie—

    First of all, this is a really amazing story! I love Rob's sense of humor, and I think you did a good job of communicating his positive outlook. I’m also a fan of your lead—it nicely establishes the main character’s voice without giving away the conflict too soon. I’m curious as to who your audience is—is this an Index piece? Or are you perhaps targeting a larger audience outside the Kalamazoo Community?

    I was a little confused about the extent of Rob’s impaired hearing—does he have to use some kind of hearing aid? Does he hear better in one ear? How did you interview him? How did profs at Western and KVCC accommodate his impaired hearing? Did they?

    It seems like he struggled with this a lot when he was young—but I feel like there’s a bit of a disconnect in your story between young Rob and current Rob who heads the recycling program. And I’m really curious to know how current Rob deals with this as an adult. Does his hearing affect his job performance?

    I think it would be really interesting to add in his artistic side--is there a way you could use artistic/delicate descriptions of Rob working on the grounds, and then slip in that information? Or else, you could change your focus--however, I like the current balance between the descriptions of Rob on K's campus as a recycling guru and his past.

    Nice first draft!

  2. Maggie,

    Did you know about Rob’s hearing when you decided to interview him? This is such an interesting story. I think you do a great job of setting up his background relevant to his job now and then you dive into that history of his with quotes. You’re incredibly concise with his story and yet I don’t feel as if anything is left out. Great connection back to recycling with his quote about being a younger brother and good ol’ hand-me-downs. Is it possible to quickly explain why moving the food to the compost site isn’t happening like he thinks it should (if it’s cheaper what the problem?) I really like how the part about his categorizing methods with problems has a subtle connection with categorizing recyclables.

    I’d like to know more about how/why Rob ended up/came to K in the first place. At the beginning he seems so calculating, like going home to think about the job offer to organize his big plans. I just see him as this guy who has his sights set and I’m wondering how long his gaze had been on K. By the way, it is sooooo interesting! I think you’re weaving has been super successful.


  3. Maggie,

    I really like that you're focusing on Rob for your final piece. It's always great to learn about people who are such institutions at K College who not everyone really gets the chance to meet.

    Like Julia, I was confused about the extent of his hearing impairment. I think it would help to know - what can he hear without aids? How much has he typically had to rely on lip-reading and such?

    My other comment is that you have a lot of He Saids, almost as citations, that are unattached to quotation marks. I feel like the comment on cancer especially should either be a direct quote, or the medical aspects of that paragraph should cite a medical text/professional rather than him, one way or another. I think there's probably another way to frame the other occurrences of this kind of language that either incorporates direct quotes or phrases the sentences differently, too.

    Overall, a great start, and a nice first draft. I look forward to finding out more about him :)

  4. Maggie,

    This is an incredibly well-researched, well-written first draft. Kudos. I love how you weave description throughout your piece, both of Rob himself and his job.

    My suggestions are pretty minor at this point. One, you give a chronology of his school years, but I get kind of lost when it comes to how old he is and what grade he's in. If you just add in little thing like, at 12 when he started the 4th grade, or something like that. Also, in what years does this stuff take place? When did he move to Kzoo?

    Another point of confusion is with the title. Why exactly is he the busiest man on campus? Since you don't really compare him to other people on campus, I have a hard time seeing how he is really the busiest.

    Loved your lead. Really great.

    Does Rob have kids? What does it mean to him to work on a college campus and in an academic environment after all he's been through academically?

    Great start!


  5. Hi Maggie,

    This is a sweet piece. I liked ROb before reading this, but now I like him even more. The deaf narrative leading to his marriage was a touchingly quirky love story. You do a good job of relating various parts of his life together, but I crave, as a reader, for you to dig a bit more below the surface. I suggest you speak with other sources who have more outside insight than he does. Can his wife tell you what his greatest frustrations are? What about his daughter?

    Your writing is very good and clear, and I encourage you to define an audience for your piece (if you haven't already done so) so as to decide what needs to be explained.

    This is gonna be really special!