When you think of people at MIT, maybe you think of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, or perhaps you think of President Susan Hockfield. You probably think of the Nobel winners, such as Prof. Wolfgang Ketterle, Prof. Phil Sharp and their brethren. Maybe you think of students, like Reid Barton or Laurel Yong-Hwa Lee. But you probably don’t think about the other people at MIT who shape the lives in our community: the nightwatchmen, the janitors, the food service workers, the administrative assistants…
Recently, two such people who influenced my generation of MIT students passed away.
James E. Roberts Sr. was known as “Big Jimmy” to students across campus. He was the nightwatchman at two dorms, East Campus and Senior House. Big Jimmy was a legendary figure, someone I only met briefly but who many of my friends counted as a confidant and friend. I asked my very good friend Jen Frank if she could share some of her Big Jimmy memories.
Two stories come to mind to exemplify what Big Jimmy meant to me.
The first was freshman year. I had a crush on a sophomore on my hall, and Jimmy was always joking that Michael and I should get together. One day he overheard us discussing how we both loved a good Reuben sandwich. A few days later, Jimmy brought me a bag of the nicest corned beef I think I have ever had and told me to go make sandwiches for myself and Michael.
The second was senior year – again with the crush. Only this time, it was my 21st birthday and I was just getting back from a night out with the guy I liked. I willed myself up a bit and tried to kiss him, and he said he didn’t think of me that way. We are still friends to this day, but that night I ran upstairs ready to cry. No one was awake, but as I was getting ready for bed I heard the sound I will forever associate with Jimmy – aluminum cans in a plastic bag, clanking away. I cried on Jimmy’s shoulder that night.
Jen with Big Jimmy, from In Memory of Big Jimmy.
Some years ago, Big Jimmy was awarded MIT’s prestigious James N. Murphy award, “for MIT employees whose contributions to the Institute community have endeared them to students.” His Murphy Award citation read:
Big Jimmy serves as protector, physician, counselor and parent to MIT students in their hours of greatest need. He has saved lives directly through his cool and courageous actions and he may have saved lives indirectly through his kind words and deeds.
Big Jimmy passed away a week ago today.
My friend Satwik gave me the sad news this week that Howard Brown (another winner of the James N. Murphy Award), the custodian for the MIT Student Center for many years, passed away recently. Howard befriended many students during his late-night rounds, especially on the 4th floor of the Student Center, home to student activity offices including The Tech (the student newspaper), Technique (the yearbook), the Undergraduate Association (student government), and the Science Fiction Society. The Tech wrote about the retirement party students threw in his honor.
On June 7 The Tech held a retirement party for Howard. Howard was there on time. There were goodies on the table, and a cluster of admiring faces had gathered around.
After a few moments of silence, Howard told us about his time at MIT, how he worked at Lobdell [Food Court], then Baker House, then the Student Center. He reminisced on the generations of students he’d befriended. And then there was a pause once more. “And when I die, I want my ashes to be scattered on the oval outside. That’s what I want to be looking at: the Student Center.”
Another silence, then it was time to give Howard his gift — the lovingly-prepared plaque and a pile of CDs, to provide more music for his retirement. “Oh Man! Holy Toledo,” said an amazed Howard. “You know what my roommate told me. You’d better stay at home because they’re going to make you cry. And you know what –he was right! Excuse me. I’ll be back. I’ve got to go out in the hallway and cry.”
Howard Brown with his James N. Murphy Award, from Donna Coveney, MIT News Office.
It’s not just about Nobel Laureates and Rhodes Scholars here. Many people at MIT have touched my life, and I hope in some small way I might have touched theirs.