Robert "Bob" Villani retires after 49 years of service

January 21, 2021

When Bob Villani started working at Yale, Kingman Brewster was its president, HBO was just launched, and the Yale Center for British Art and Luce Hall were not yet built. Over his 49-year career, there have been seven Yale presidents, many new buildings, and massive technology changes. Throughout the decades, Bob relished learning the buildings’ inner mechanics, problem-solving complex issues, and enjoying the comraderie of many colleagues.

Born and raised in the Goatville area of the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven, Bob went to Wilbur Cross High School and graduated from Southern Connecticut State College with a B.S. in Secondary Education English. Originally, he planned to be an English teacher but then heard about a plumbing apprentice program at Yale. Intrigued, he entered the two-year program in 1975, just after finishing college. Upon completion, he became a full-time Yale plumber assigned to the central campus area and worked on large and small repairs from clogged toilets to replacing steam generated water heaters.

Bob moved into management in 1989 and by the 1990s, he was promoted to senior plumbing supervisor for the central and science areas. He managed over 20 plumbers who were responsible for general maintenance and emergency repairs. Around that same time, Facilities started a new maintenance philosophy and created multi-trade groups to maintain buildings by zone. Bob and his group piloted this new program, and he was now managing plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and mechanics overseeing Zone 1. The program has been refined over the years and now includes fewer trades: plumbing, electrical, equipment, and the zones are back to being referred to as Central, Science, Medical, and West.

Until his retirement, Bob was responsible for 30 buildings on Science Hill. He managed issues involving external lighting, power outages, floods, air quality maintenance and many other mechanical problems. He and his team know the buildings and their customers well and feel a sense of ownership with their area. As new buildings go up and others are renovated, the technology for heating, lighting, and cooling is more complicated, but Bob enjoyed the challenge.

During his last week on the job, Bob met with us via Zoom to talk about his Yale career.

What was your first job at Yale?

When I was still in high school, my twin brother Ken and I worked in custodial on the Old Campus. That summer, I helped move out all the old furniture from Vanderbilt Hall and move in the new furniture. It was the first-year female undergraduates came to Yale. There was a lot of security set up for their arrival, including a security guard at the Vanderbilt archway where visitors had to sign in. I had to lug furniture up to the 7th-floor tower; there was no elevator!

I think many things in life are just luck, like my late brother and me being at Yale during that most historical moment. But there was also a lot of hard work involved.

Best Yale memory

It was special to me working to move in that first female class. I was also involved in a total renovation of the heating system at 43 Hillhouse some years ago. We took an old steam system out and replaced it with a hot water one. It was just one other plumber and me working on what was at that time a large job. I was proud of that. And while I’ve worked on large and small projects, I guess my best memories are of the many co-workers and the staff I’ve worked with over the years. It’s been a wonderful career overall. 

What will you miss?

I will miss the camaraderie, although due to COVID there hasn’t been much of that. I will miss the challenge of the job, resolving challenging or complex issues. I’ll also miss walking around campus, especially at lunchtime. I used to walk with a group of friends every day no matter the weather; we’d talk, vent about stuff, and it was good exercise.

What will you do in retirement?

I’m an avid tennis player. So, I hope to play a lot more in retirement. I’m still fit and playing much younger guys. Hopefully, I can keep that up for a while. I also enjoy hiking with my wife Sue.

Any parting words. 

The University keeps growing and adding new buildings and that’s great. But the buildings’ systems are more and more complex using technologies for lighting, heating, etc. I hope the University keeps its workforce supported and trained to keep up with these upgrades. 

These buildings now require a lot more maintenance than 10 or 20 years ago. It’s not just changing a light bulb. Things are computerized. It’s all good, but the staff needs support to keep these buildings maintained properly.