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.”