Maria Hix, Wheaton’s paint shop manager, is stacking cans of lavender and charcoal gray paint in the closet of the Office of Christian Outreach (OCO) when the director of the OCO, Yulee Lee, comes out of her office.
“I told her on the phone about the paint you’re donating, and she was so grateful and excited,” Lee tells Hix.
Hix, who is lifting an entire box of paint cans by herself onto the upper shelf, tells her that it was nothing, and she was happy to do it. “We’re going to repaint the whole teacher’s lounge with this,” Lee says excitedly. “Maybe we should FaceTime you in to thank you!”
“Oh no, I hate hearing my voice on FaceTime,” Hix laughs, her Alabama accent coming out strong.
Though her office is located in the Chase Service Center, Hix is well-acquainted with the OCO and its work. Besides securing a paint donation from her vendors for an OCO service day at a public school in Chicago, she also serves as a leader for one of the OCO's most in-demand BreakAway Spring Break trip locations: Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. For the last 12 years, Hix has taken a group of Wheaton students down to Louisiana during their March break to minister at Angola Prison, an all-male maximum security facility.
“You’ll find that within the facilities team, there are so many of us who are involved in other things with the students here, so it’s not just about work,” Hix says. “It’s not just about the vocation that we do. We are involved in building the campus up in a lot of ways.”
Hix works as part of the maintenance department. Previously, she was a gemologist and jeweler, but she began painting as a means of self-employment when she was at home raising her two daughters after her family moved to Illinois from Alabama. After hearing about the opening at Wheaton from a friend, Hix decided to apply. She was the first full-time female member of the “trades” team, which includes the paint shop, carpentry, plumbing, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and she is now going into her 14th year at Wheaton.
On most days, you can find Hix in her paint shop, located somewhere past the Public Safety office, conference rooms, and carpentry shop. It's one tall, narrow room with two floors. Up a set of stairs, there are shelves of paint cans like the ones Hix loaded into the closet for the OCO project.
The main area is more eclectic, with Hix’s desk in one corner and more storage in the other, mismatched chairs and tables filling the rest of the space. One armchair is covered entirely in paint, and I recognize it from an art event a few years ago, when students were allowed to paint whatever they wanted on a white chair. (Although there’s not much of the original color still visible, I think I can even see where I painted some polka dots along the side). One of the walls sloping up alongside the staircase is covered entirely with student handprints in various primary colors (and one set of footprints too high up on the wall to not have been an impressive logistical feat).
“These are representative of all the students who have come through the paint shop,” Hix tells me happily. “A lot of them have gone on to have families and brought their kids back to put their hands or feet on the wall.”
Every summer, the paint shop employs about 20 student workers, mostly students from other colleges who are back in the area for break. According to Hix, their team views the summers as a time not only to get to know these students and teach them hard skills, but also to foster character development.
During the year, Hix and three other full-time staff take care of work orders and other paint jobs on campus. That could mean painting a new faculty member’s office to prepare for their arrival or it could mean repairing peeling paint in the Lower Beamer Center.
While painting might appear to be a purely aesthetic contribution, it’s a necessary part of caring for students and the College buildings. For example, Hix and her team recently spent two weeks repainting the Chrouser Gymnasium at the request of the athletic director, who said that baseball team members were having trouble seeing the ball against off-white walls. Hix says that this issue was a safety concern for the students, but also that she had always wished the gym looked more “collegiate” so the teams could feel like it was their facility and not just any recreation center. They painted the walls a “Wheaton blue” and re-touched the rest of the facility with more spirited details.
“Color can really change how someone feels. I take delight in the fact that we can bring in a little bit of joy to a space that people inhabit. We are made in God’s image, and if you look, everything is not black and white or even gray. There is lots of vibrant color out there, and so I’m thankful that we’ve been given the task of putting some color on the campus, as well as keeping it maintained,” Hix says.
Form and Function
As it turns out, there is much more to the campus than meets the eye. Besides the faculty and staff with whom students interact in classes or departmental offices, there are 110 members of the Facilities Department working every day to keep the campus clean, beautiful, and comfortable.
The Wheaton Facilities Team is grouped into four sectors: Facilities Operations (office and custodial teams), Construction Services and Maintenance, Utilities and Energy Management, and Facility Development (architecture and interior design).
“A lot of what we focus on is high reliability. People don’t like it when the lights go off!” Director of Facilities Scott Okesson says, laughing. “We’re like our own little city.”
Wheaton is unique in its commitment to the Statement of Faith for all staff members. Every individual working for facilities shares their testimony during the hiring process. According to Okesson, who has worked at Wheaton for the past nine years, this spiritual dimension shapes the dynamic of the team and the excellence of their work.
“I think people here genuinely have a deep commitment to the mission,” Okesson says. “Wheaton College is a very special place. It’s very strategic in God’s kingdom as a Christian school, but as a premier Christian school … People really have a sense of that.”
In the mornings, the teams meet for optional devotionals at 7:30 a.m. before going out to do their work for the day, whether that’s filling work orders placed by Residence Life, overseeing the latest building projects, or maintaining the system of underground piping that heats the entire campus with steam.
Essentially, the primary goal of the Facilities Department is to provide spaces that are functional and beautiful.
Whitley Grey, Wheaton’s interior designer, focuses on three aspects of design when she starts a new project, whether that’s picking colors for the Welcome Center lobby to present the College well to prospective students or helping faculty members get a more comfortable office chair so they can work better: What will this space be used for? What do they need for it to serve their needs? And how can we make it beautiful?
“We want to create these special spaces that work well for people. When we’ve thought [a design] through, people don’t have to think about it, they just use it, and it works great for what they do. Then they can focus on whatever they’re trying to create,” Grey says.
Vice President for Finance and Operations Chad Rynbrandt ’94, who began working at Wheaton just last year, has been impressed by both the faithfulness and the skill of the facilities team. He spent 25 years in the corporate world and can see the impact of a shared faith foundation on the work of Wheaton's teams.
“There are many who have been faithfully serving for 10, 20, 30 years because of their commitment to kingdom work. And they have very high standards because they are working for the Lord. You can see it walking through campus—in the beautiful homegrown flowers, or the wonderfully designed Welcome Center. And when the new Concert Hall opens, we’ll get to enjoy music in a venue with world-class acoustics. There is a faithfulness and an excellence that is inspiring,” says Rynbrandt.
In addition to functionality and aesthetics, Director of Construction Services and Maintenance Randy Norbeck ’87 emphasizes the importance of stewardship.
“Our biggest challenge is making sure we use the dollars as efficiently and effectively as we can, because most of the projects that I do are funded by donations from friends of the College and alumni, and it’s very important that we use every one of those dollars to maximize what we can provide, not only for the students, for the staff, and for the faculty, but because we have a kingdom mission,” he explains.
Norbeck’s goal in approaching every building project is to build lasting facilities that are easy to maintain. “We want to build a building that will last 100 years. Will we update it, will we modernize it during that 100 years? Yes, but we want the infrastructure and the main building to be able to last, so that we’re getting the most value out of the dollars that are given to the College.”
Okesson also places sustainability for campus energy usage and recycling at a high priority. In the last four years, Wheaton’s energy intensity has gone down by 18 percent, saving money and reducing the College’s carbon footprint. Many campus buildings have switched to LED lights and low-flow plumbing. During the Armerding construction project, after Breyer Hall was torn down to make room for the new Conservatory building, all of it that was salvageable was recycled into the building process.
The Facilities Department’s near-term goals include a major renovation of Traber Hall and the first phase of conversion from a central steam heating system to the newer technology of using central hot water. Sustainability goals include continued energy reduction, rehabilitating the wetlands immediately south of the Meyer Science Center, and implementing a campus garden.
Many members of the campus may not realize that Wheaton has its own greenhouse, where another facility team member, Flower Coordinator Jorge Contreras, grows the flowers used for landscaping.
“As I walk our campus, I see many examples of faithful workmanship and attention to detail,” says President Philip G. Ryken ’88. “Our mums last autumn were resplendent. This wasn’t a surprise, but a visible testimony to both Jorge’s gardening skills and his fervent prayers for our campus flowers.”
Wheaton’s campus now stretches across 1.8 million square feet. It’s a lot to maintain, but the facilities team works hard to ensure the spaces are well cared for. Some even work through the night.
Night Custodian Gregory Dixon is by far the most pastoral custodian I have ever met. He starts his sentences out slowly, but the more he gets going, the faster he talks, the farther he leans forward, and the wider his hands gesture, as if he’s caught onto something essential—something spiritual that demands a greater intensity.
When he speaks, I find myself unintentionally falling into a call-and-response style, as if I’m a member of his congregation, and he’s pausing for me to say “amen,” but I opt for a chorus of yes, yeah, alright, for sure, you’re right, of course. As I follow him around his night shift at midnight in Armerding Hall, I feel compelled to reply affirmatively as he talks, even though it requires shouting from the opposite end of the hallway and maneuvering my way around his sweeper by jumping in and out of doorways to keep up with his pace. Every few minutes, Dixon counters my questions with his own: Where do I go to church, and how often do I go? Do I see my work as a ministry? How long have I been doing this? When do I graduate?
Dixon is, in fact, a pastor. He proudly pulls out his minister’s license from his wallet to prove it to me, although I already believed him. He serves as pastor of Universal Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago and holds a degree in biblical studies from Trinity College. One might wonder how theology could apply to being a part of Wheaton’s night custodial team, but Dixon sees his position as an extension of his ministry.
“I’m committed to making sure that people are pleased when they come in. They come in, and they see their office, and it’s tidy and clean. It gives me pleasure to give back because it shows that my work has been more than just cleaning. I try to give spiritual encouragement as well. Not preaching to nobody, but just motivating them and letting them see Christ in me. We have the opportunity to do that because we pass many faces through the night and the day,” Dixon says.
According to Rynbrandt, the work of many facilities teams doesn’t always get much attention, especially those that work through the night, but “they’re doing it to serve the Lord. When that’s your motive, because you are a follower of Jesus, I think it enables you to serve faithfully maybe without a lot of acclaim, visibility, or sometimes even gratitude.”
While the custodial team as a whole includes 38 people, Dixon is one of four members on the “projects crew,” which is a special team that handles longer-term maintenance responsibilities like cleaning carpets, waxing the floors, and getting the campus ready for important events like Commencement and Homecoming. On a typical workday, Dixon shows up to Wheaton at 11:00 p.m. and works through the night until 7:30 a.m.
Dixon, who has been working for Wheaton for 14 years, grew up on the West Side of Chicago— “All my life,” he says proudly. He has pastored the church now for seven years but has been involved for 38. “I started out as a deacon, I was in the choir, I served as a minister, assistant pastor, pastor; it’s been a long journey,” he remembers. Dixon now lives in Oak Park with his wife, who recently retired from her position at the post office. Their four children and five grandchildren live nearby. “We’re family-oriented—we do everything together,” he says.
For Dixon, Wheaton has the same family feel. “I want to feel like I’m more than just an employee. I want to feel like I’m part of something more than just work,” he explains. “[At Wheaton], when you see your boss coming, you know they’re not just coming to check on [your work], they’re coming to see how you’re really doing. That means more to me than the cleaning, because once I know that you care about me, then I care about what I do.”
Four times a year, the Facilities Department holds “family meetings” where the custodial team gathers together for a time of fellowship and learning about what else is going on at the College. They meet at 6:15 a.m. for breakfast and have time for fellowship with people they don’t always get to see daily.
“A lot of people don’t get to see us at night to thank us for what we do, so when we do have the family meeting, it’s an opportunity for them to tell us how they really feel about it, and it makes us feel good,” Dixon says.
During these meetings, Director of Facilities Scott Okesson talks about new facilities on campus and plans for new buildings.
I point out to Dixon that there are a lot of projects going on right now on the campus.
“It’s really a blessing. Y’all have got a lot of buildings coming up this year," he agrees.
“More to clean?” I ask.
“You know I like that; cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Then he grins. “And as long as there’s something to clean, that means we’ve got a job!”