In 1981, A. Bartlett Giamatti was Yale’s President, NASA launched the first space shuttle, and bean bag chairs were all the rage. That same year Michael Roberts, Superintendent, Office of Facilities, began his Yale career.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, the youngest of three, Michael’s family eventually moved to Herrin, Illinois. He graduated from Herrin High School, where he studied several trades and built houses with his dad during the summer.
Due to family ties, he found himself living in Connecticut and working at a hardware store in Fairfield. A year later, at the age of 19, he began working at Yale. Now 40 years in, he continues to enjoy his job, colleagues, and customers.
Michael started in the stockroom working for what was then called Traffic, Receiving, and Stores (TR&S) on Hillhouse Avenue. He would load trucks with paper goods and other office supplies. In the afternoon, he would walk to Ashmun Street and work in the physical plant stockroom. Both of those buildings no longer exist.
Always looking to move up, Michael tried a few different jobs over the years. From the stockroom, he took a job in Osborn Memorial Laboratory as a research and development technician. Then, in 1996, he was hired as superintendent of Branford and Jonathan Edwards colleges. From there, he transferred to Old Campus, where he stayed for ten years.
Old Campus houses over 1,000, primarily freshmen, so those years were hectic and hilarious. At that time, there were no freshman counselors assigned to live there, so on Monday mornings, Michael and his crew never knew what they’d find. Some interesting finds include several parking meters, a large Shawmut Bank sign, missing fire extinguishers, a hot tub, and even a built-from-scratch ball pit!
After Old Campus, Michael continued as a superintendent for the Sterling Memorial and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript libraries and witnessed the Bass Library being built. Next was a stint at Morse and Stiles Colleges, then Saybrook and Trumbull Colleges. Eventually, in 2015, he landed at the Yale School of Medicine. He’s worked with many great crews over the years and currently manages a team of 18.
When asked, he doesn’t hesitate in saying that his favorite memories include his interactions with the students. “I always loved commencement. I felt when watching the students graduate that they are why we are here. We help them along their journey to becoming great people or doing great things for society,” said Michael.
He and his wife Heather trade work stories over the dinner table as she is a registrar in the Yale Department of Religious Studies. We caught up with Michael via Zoom about his life and long Yale career.
What is the most challenging thing about your job?
You never know what the day will bring, from meeting a customer’s expectations to severe weather events. The pandemic has brought its own challenges. When one of our areas is identified as having had someone who recently tested positive, we must go in and sanitize the room. It’s been tough on my team, but they are a great group and have adjusted.
Favorite Yale memories
President George W. Bush received an honorary degree some years back. Members of the U.S. Secret Service came in with detection dogs to sweep certain areas. One of the agents ended up being a friend from high school who I hadn’t seen since graduation! Another time, a student’s mother came to me during freshman move-in asking for help with a few things. I interacted with her a couple of times that day. I found out later that it was Bette Midler!
What are changes have you witnessed at Yale over the years?
I’ve seen a lot of buildings renovated and many new ones built over the years. In that time, I noticed the University leaning toward greener practices with building materials, design, maintenance, and even landscaping.
What advice would you give someone new to Yale?
Embrace change because it’s happening all the time.
When I was younger, I played softball like it was a second job. We even had a Yale Physical Plant team that was almost unbeatable. Now I love to fly fish and take trips to remote areas to paddle a canoe and cast my line. It is something my wife and I can do together.
Few fun facts about yourself
I love anything to do with the outdoors. Taking those many remote trips, I’ve spent time reading up on wild edibles. On any given hike, I can identify 10 to 15 things you can safely eat. In front of 333 Cedar Street, there are some trees with edible berries. I’ve gotten a few funny looks when I’ve walked by, picked a few, and munched on them.