Extra effort by staff members keeps UChicago community safe and warm

As Chicago endured a pummeling from snow and record cold temperatures in the last few days, hundreds of people at the University of Chicago have been working behind the scenes and around the clock to keep buildings warm, sidewalks cleared, and community members safe.

From jump-starting cars to delivering hot meals, many of these staff members made extraordinary efforts in difficult conditions.

“We are deeply grateful and indebted to staff members who have provided essential services through the worst of this weather, putting the safety of the University community before their own comfort,” said a Jan. 6 letter to campus from Nim Chinniah, executive vice president for administration and chief financial officer,  Karen Warren Coleman, vice president for campus life, and Rich Iorio, vice president and chief human resources officer.


The weather emergency resulted in the cancellation of classes and non-essential activities on Monday, Jan. 6; classes resumed on Jan. 7. But many workers carried on with indispensible tasks even as most of the city sought shelter indoors.

“There was an extraordinary effort across the University community,” Coleman said, noting the contributions of Facilities Services, UChicago Dining, Residential Services, College Housing and the UCPD.

Facilities Services already had been removing snow from sidewalks, doorways and buildings at a record pace this winter, keeping miles of campus pathways cleared. Grounds crews have cleared the equivalent of a year’s worth of snow—with 37 inches of snow this winter, Hyde Park already has beat the historical average.

“A lot of people who don’t normally use shovels have pitched in,” said Kevin Austin, director of campus and residential services for Facilities Services. “Carpenters, painters, engineers have all been helping clear snow and ice,” he said.

Clearing these piles is a job first for the augurs, the machines that grind packed ice and snow. Brooms are then attached to the machines for a second pass, and finally the crews come back with salt. “It’s hard on our people, because they can’t stay out very long in the freezing temperatures,” Austin said. With the wind chill, Monday morning felt like -40 degrees.

College Housing opened the residence halls as scheduled on Sunday, requiring extra work by staffers in the middle of the snowstorm that preceded Monday’s record cold snap. As the University’s steam plants set a new output record on Monday, UChicago Dining workers were busy preparing meals for students who returned to Hyde Park over the weekend. UChicago Dining also opened its doors to the facilities crews and police officers who were working overtime.

“UChicago Dining has gone above and beyond,” said Gloria Graham, assistant vice president of police services and assistant chief of police in the UCPD. Her officers were seen stamping their feet and warming up to meals and drinks inside the dining halls on their short breaks from patrolling the streets.

UCPD puts in long hours in the cold

UCPD officers stayed on patrol during the extreme weather, serving those in need on the snow-swept streets and sidewalks. Jinim Kim, a second-year medical student, found herself stuck in a snowy spot with a dead car battery. The Hyde Park resident expressed gratitude to the UCPD in general and officer Jeremy Jones in particular, who came to her rescue.

“Not only was he extremely helpful,” she said of the officer who opened the hood and jumped her dead battery, “he was also patient, friendly, respectful, and very courteous.” Before he left, Jones helped push Kim’s car out of the snow.

“Our officers are essential University personnel,” Graham said, noting that they have been on the lookout for stranded cars and people, as well as impassible roads and traffic hazards during the severe weather.

Officers also have been a resource for local community members without a place to sleep, helping them access city services and shelters.

“Their dedication and professionalism have been exemplary,” Graham said. Many of the officers made last-minute childcare and household arrangements in order to come to work on a day when most of the city’s schools were closed.

Stay calm and yoga on

For some students the return to campus became a festive occasion, as impromptu meals and games have sprung up in lounges and commons across the residence halls.

Residents of International House celebrated their return to campus with yoga classes, a social hour and a game night. The many students whose flights had been delayed straggled back to I-House to find Downton Abbey watching parties and an extra large dinner on Monday night.

“Our residents were especially surprised and pleased that the Tiffin Café was open, which lets them have a hot meal and get started on their grocery shopping,” said Denise Jorgens, director of I-House.

“Many of the residence hall desk clerks worked multiple shifts to ensure students could move in safely, while Resident Masters and Resident Heads braved the weather to make sure their kitchens were stocked with provisions and their fireplaces were lit for cozy get-togethers,” Coleman said.

UChicago Dining took special care of the on-campus students who don’t live adjacent to a dining hall, and delivered food for lunch and dinner for them on Monday night so they could avoid venturing out in the cold. College Housing staff in these residence halls, including Breckinridge, MacLean, and Blackstone Houses, and the New Graduate and International House residence halls, prepared hot meals for their students.

And while everyone was strongly encouraged to stay indoors, some students couldn’t resist venturing outside for the occasional, brief snowball fight. Each ended with a blast of warm air and often a hot chocolate in a clean and inviting campus building.