Years at Yale: 31
First Job at Yale: Custodian
Extracurricular: Spends time with his wife, Ernestine, who worked at Yale for 30 years in Yale Dining and Facilities. Enjoys the company of his three children and eight grandchildren. Keeps busy with yard work and gardening.
Where were you born?
I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I lived there about 2 years and then the family moved to New Haven. My father worked for Winchester [Winchester Repeating Arms Company]. I’ve spent my whole life in New Haven since then.
What brought you to Yale?
Well, I came to Yale when I got laid off from the steel mill, Eastern Steel & Metal in Milford. I was there for 7 years. When I started here in August of 1980, I was a custodian in afro-american studies and the music school. I stayed a custodian until April of 1981. Then I bid into Commons as a night pot-washer, working 12-9 a.m. until the summer when I did some alternate work back in custodial. When school started back, a job as head GSA [general service assistant] was vacated, and I bid on it. The guy who got the job was there for 4 years, and then he was let go. That’s when they called me and said, “Hey, you want the job?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll try it,” and the rest is history. So it’s been 31 years, most of them in Commons, and now I’m lead head GSA.
Is there anyone in particular who has been your role model in the workplace?
Jasper Hyman. I worked with him for the first 18 or 19 years in Commons. He was the senior GSA. He taught me to confirm what I knew --how to stick to your guns so that people didn’t walk all over you. He taught me to be firm -- if you decide to do something, stick to it and don’t dally with it. By him being older than me, he mentored me as I do now with some of the new employees coming in as casuals. My job as lead head GSA is to train and direct others on how to do their work.
Do you have a childhood memory that comes to mind?
What I remember most is that I started working when I was about 11 years old. I was the “superintendent” of our building --our house—doing odd jobs like trimming hedges, mowing the lawn, fixing things if I could. Instead of paying me, the landlord took the money off the rent and it helped my family out. My father had left my mother, you see, and she was on welfare, and that’s how we made a little extra money. Since those early days, I’ve had 1-2 jobs a year ever since.
Where do you think you got your work ethic?
I guess from the guys who were working on the house we were living in when I was a boy. I watched the plumber do the plumbing, the electric guy do the wiring, the painter do the painting --and I picked up on it, and I’ve been doing these things ever since. I’m like a MacGyver. I would say I’m mechanically inclined. And I have some common sense.
How was it growing up in New Haven during your time?
I came up through the time of the Black Panthers and the riots. I moved to Congress Avenue in 1960, and that was just before the riots. It was wild --you can’t imagine it. I was right there in the heart of it all. But, at the same time, I was away for a lot of it because I joined the Marine Corp in 1969. I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, at Guantanamo Bay at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and for a shorter time, in Rhode Island. When I was in Rhode Island, the military asked me to come to New Haven during the Black Panther trials, but I said no, I couldn’t fight my own people, my neighbors.
When I was away in the service, I met my older half-brothers, from my father’s first marriage, and I brought them to meet my siblings in New Haven, so I’d say I’m a connection between the two sides of the family.
Seven days after I got out of the service, my mother died of a heart attack at 39. I stayed home then to help run my brother’s record shop and settled here for good.
What do you think makes a good leader?
A leader is someone who is true to himself. Someone who is not scared to tell people when they do something wrong, and then helps show them the right way to do it. And a leader is someone who’s not afraid to admit when he is wrong. Being a leader isn’t something you can just do either, you have to learn it and live it.
Is there someone outside of Yale who’s been an inspiration in your life?
My mom --she taught me how to cook and clean, but she basically taught me how to be a good man. She gave me tough love, and you learn a lot from tough love. She taught me you have to work for the things you want. They can’t all be handed to you.
Do you have a favorite Commons memory?
I have a lot of memories! When they were filming Indiana Jones, I helped the film crew do a lot of the stuff behind the scenes. They had the motorcycle scene in Commons, and I helped with that. I’ve met three U.S. presidents in Commons --Bush Sr., Bush Jr. and Clinton. I was introduced to Hilary Clinton and also President Ford. I’ve met the football All-Americans who come to the Walter Camp Awards Dinner at Commons every year. And I’ve worked 30 Christmas processions, setting up the ice sculptures.
I call Commons my home --I’ve been here more than anywhere else for the past 31 years. People call me Mr. Kenny. A lot of them ask me for advice and I’m happy to give it.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is to be able to say that the people who I trained as GSAs run over half of the dining halls. There are 13 dining halls and I’ve trained seven of the head GSAs. Another is to see the way I’ve touched fellow employees’ and students’ lives over the years. Students come back for reunions and they come up to me and say how much fun they had here and how well we took care of them.
There was this one kid who was not prepared at all for the first snowstorm of the year. He came to Commons covered in snow with just a T-shirt and sneakers on. I told him he looked like a walking snowman and nicknamed him “snowman” and that’s what I always called him. Well, he came back for his 5th reunion this year and asked me if I remembered what I used to call him. Sure I remembered. We laughed.
What is the quality you think is most important for achieving success, in work and in life?
To be true to yourself. I tell my kids and grandkids this all of the time.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to Yale?
When they call you, come and put forth the effort.
What are you most proud of?
Honestly, the fact that I’ve stayed in one spot for so long. I’ve worked to the top of my field. I’m not afraid of work. I also serve on Yale Dining’s Joint Departmental Committee (JDC) and its Health and Safety Committee.
Tell me about your hat.
My hat has pins for all of the Yale colleges and schools, but the Law School. I’ve got pins of the presidential seal, U.S. Marshals, the CIA, Martin Luther King, NAACP Lifetime Achievement, 9/11, the 300th birthday of Yale, the Yale Police. There’s more at home in a jar, and I have to switch them out because they won’t all fit. This hat has helped start a lot of conversations.