Suiting up for work in a hard hat and jeans, a group of five men work hard to keep the Maryville College steam plant up and running. Every day they control more than a mile of steam plant piping, running right under the feet of Maryville College students. They even operate 24/7 during the “heating season,” which runs from the end of October to mid-April.
Often students don’t understand the difficult decisions and hard work that allows the steam to run to their dorms. They’ve never heard of the people that operate the steam plant, the people behind the steam. They only see twin towers in the distance that puff out big belches of white vapor into the sky.
While it may be easy to blame the temperature in the dorms on a faceless stack of bricks, this isn’t the reality. The decisions regarding the steam plant are made by a core group of people, with families, personalities, and lives.
There’s Larry May, Mike Rogers, Zeke Uzzle, Tim Cook, and Adam Latham, as well as Reggie Dailey who works in conjunction with them as director of the Physical Plant on campus. So let’s put some faces and personalities to this “Steam Team.”
Mike Rogers is in his fourth year at the steam plant, and says the employees and the leadership are like a “big family” that look out for one another. Before he was hired at Maryville College, Rogers was in the army for six years, and worked in a machine shop for General Electric. He has been married for 41 years, and has a daughter and baby granddaughter. He also has a small dog named Zoey Bean that he sometimes brings to the steam plant.
Larry May has worked at the steam plant for 5 months, and is responsible for the employees. The employees have a playful relationship with May, and like to mess around with him. When May asks them what they are doing, Mike Rogers said he will often joke that he’s going off “to get an ice cream” or that he was about to “wash his truck.”
Zeke Uzzle is the youngest member of the steam team, and has worked at the plant for around a year. He attended Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, for a while before working for Maryville College. In his spare time he pursues music, including the violin and guitar.
Adam Latham has worked for the plant for 5 years. His favorite part about working here is that they get to do something different every day. Before he worked for the College he worked in a metal fabrication shop specializing in roofing. He is married, and he mows lawns in his spare time.
Tim Cook has been working for the steam plant for a while as well. Cook does odd jobs around Maryville, running a sort of handyman service in addition to his work on the steam plant. The other workers like to play pranks on Cook, such as setting things just out of his reach and moving it a little higher every day.
They told two funny stories about Cook in which he got soaked doing jobs around the college. One time he was fixing a plumbing problem and the faucet broke and sprayed him all over, and another time he was trying to fix a pump and it “kicked back and squirted water all up on him.”
Latham laughed at the second story, saying the pump “looked like old faithful,” and playfully noted that “Tim has a habit of getting wet.”
So, what does a normal day look like for these men? During the winter months they spend a lot of time in a bobcat, loading wood chips, and moving wood chips around. They also have to get hourly readings regarding the functioning of the plant, and check the water levels.
Lastly, one time a day they make a perilous climb up the side of the brick silo, on a 62-foot outdoor ladder in order to check that things are running smoothly. As if doing it once weren’t terrifying enough, Rogers said that he has made the climb five times in one day before.
The steam plant employees all work 12 hour shifts, from 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night. During the winter months they get no vacation days, meaning that they can be scheduled on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they work in all weather conditions including snow, sleet and rain.
If the weather gets too bad, they sleep in dorms on the college campus and walk down to the plant so they don’t get trapped by snow and ice on the roads. Last year they ran on a 24 hour basis all the way to graduation, because there was a malfunction with the boiler system. Saying the job disrupts their life outside of the plant is an understatement, and their intense dedication to keeping students’ dorms warm is remarkable.
“It’s more than just a job, it’s helping to take care of a family of college students and faculty. It’s a pleasure to come to work every day, and a large part of that is the people I work with.” – Reggie Dailey
This job requires a lot of sacrifice, but the team has a service-centered mindset, and Reggie Dailey shared that the employees think of the steam plant as a way to do something meaningful and make a difference.
He insists that the steam plant employees “don’t give themselves enough credit” for their hard work, and that they are willing to do anything asked of them, including odd jobs around campus such as replacing fridges, solving plumbing problems, and helping with grounds keeping.
Despite the danger and the hard work, the culture at the steam plant is a positive one, filled with camaraderie and laughter. They all agreed that they have a lot of laughs. They often cook for one another and bring it in to work, making hamburgers, hot dogs and chili.
There is also a small garden at the steam plant where they grow tomatoes and peppers that they give away. A few times a year they even have an employee cookout where they eat together. The food and the fun motivates the Steam Team, and as Rogers said, “If we didn’t like to eat, we wouldn’t work so hard!”
Overall, the “Steam Team” make the steam plant a lively place full of laughter, familial bonding, and good food, and turns a demanding job into a service project to help students. They truly care about the people of Maryville College, and work hard to ensure that students and faculty stay warm during the winter.
So today, stop for a moment to look at the steam plant, and think about Larry, Mike, Zeke, Timmy, Adam, and Reggie. Remember these ordinary men who have made extraordinary sacrifices for a group of students they don’t even know.
The people on this “Steam Team” are some of the hometown heroes of Maryville College, and Maryville, Tennessee.