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April 3, 2017

A Ride-Along in the UChicago Snow Plows

It was 4:45 a.m. on the Monday of finals week, and I was walking back from a late night of studying at the Reg when I got a text from Brandon Rux, manager of Grounds and Landscape Services at the University of Chicago.  

The University of Chicago had kindly agreed to The Maroon’s request to do an early-morning ride-along with its snow removal team. After a few snowless weeks, it was finally coming down, and Rux was on his way to pick me up from Granville-Grossman.  

On the University’s expansive campus, the facilities services unit is responsible for campus maintenance. The grounds team within the operations unit oversees University grounds—no small task for a 217-acre campus with ever increasing borders. 

The grounds team consists of 23 staff: one mechanic, two staff responsible for trash and recycling, and 20 direct frontline staff for snow during the snow season. The snow removal team handles the entryways of roughly 150 buildings and 21 miles of sidewalk.  

Rux, who has been working in facilities for seven years—as an assistant for three and a half years, and now as a manager—first dropped me off at Hull Gate. I rode a snowplow around the quad with the vehicle’s driver, Arturo Ortiz. Ortiz has been working with the University for eight years and has been tasked with driving the snowplow vehicle for the last four. 

Ortiz recalled a major blizzard in Chicago a few years ago. “It was just crazy man, all these machines that were doing the job but just real slow. We were here for three days working 16 hours or 18 hours. We even stayed here on campus. We didn't go back home. I didn’t go back home for two days,” said Ortiz.  

“I didn’t have to see my wife for two days,” he joked. 

Ortiz informed me that the grounds crew usually gets to work on snow days at 4:30 a.m. but will start as early as 3 a.m. for bigger storms. 

“We usually know when the storm is coming, so we try and prepare a day before. Everybody has a route. For me, [the route] is right here on the main quad. I usually start cleaning snow on my first street, 57th, then I continue coming inside [toward the center of campus] working my Cat [snow plow] from 57th coming into Harper. That’s how it goes, just cleaning snow back and forth,” Ortiz said. “It’s fun, you know. I like to see the snow go away.” 

The snow removal team is assigned to locations around campus based on a grid system: one snowplow vehicle for North Campus, two around the center of campus, and one for South Campus, with a number of other snow removal staff riding plow trucks or walking on foot, shoveling and salting along specific sections of campus. 

The snowplow “toolcats” are equipped with attachments depending on the severity of snowfall. 

“Right now I’m ‘brooming.’ The broom is for snow that is less than two inches. If it goes more than two inches, we use the plow, which pushes the snow away to the side,” Ortiz said. “After that, it’s the snowblower, which is for snow more than eight inches and shoots the snow to the side.” 

Ortiz added that the job is more stressful than difficult. “Especially when the snow just keeps coming, and you’re just going back and forth…and the wind is so bad…. All the snow is just coming back to you [being blown onto the windshield] and you can’t see. It’s just frustrating.” 

I was curious if Ortiz might have seen anything out of the ordinary this early in the morning. “Well, students walking with shorts and sandals,” Ortiz laughed. “The campus looks empty, lonely, sad, but we get used to it.” 

I asked Ortiz to describe the snow removal team he works with. Ortiz replied, “We’re just all together, we’re a team, and we do the job.” 

After following Ortiz around for a few runs as he snowplowed around the main quad and Harper, Rux picked me up and dropped me off at the Smart Museum. There, I met University horticulturalist Sarah Stack, who has been working with the grounds team for two years.  

Stack’s main job is taking care of the botanical gardens, but on snowy days, she is out salting pathways and shoveling slush.  

Assigned to the Regenstein Library, the parking structure, the Smart Museum, Henry Crown, and Bartlett quad, Stack prioritizes key areas for early morning snow removal.  

“I go to the library first because that’s open 24 hours, then I go back to the parking structure because people have to park, then I go based on the handicap ramps, then I kind of just work my way back,” Stack explained. 

“I add a lot of salt. I usually over-salt so students don’t fall,” Stack said. 

Stack uses between six and eight bags of salt just to cover the steps of the Reg. “Regenstein is by far the worst,” Stack mentioned. “[I go through] bags of salt—not even buckets because [the steps] are so big,” she added. “The guys on the south side who have to do the residence halls—all the steps there are so big. They have some work over there.” 

Stack said that Rux, who alerts the snow removal team if they need to come in via text and e-mail before potential storms, is like a weatherman. “He’ll try to let us know as far ahead as we can. We all have lives outside of this.” 

Stack recalled an incident from her first year on the job: A car was stuck in a parking structure because it was snowed in. “I’m just doing the entranceways, but they’re looking at me like, they want me to shovel them out…. I mean come on, I can’t push that car out!” Stack had to call someone to come over and eventually freed the car. 

Like Ortiz, Stack described the stress of her job. “I don’t think people realize how hard it is—doing brooms on the toolcats. You’re looking for pedestrians, students—they’re so focused on their studies that they do not pay attention at all,” Stack said. “You’re having to maneuver around students, and the snow just won’t let up.” 

When asked to describe the team she works with, Stack said, “They’re actually all fairly educated people. Travis is an arborist—he knows a ton about trees. Todd is so great at irrigation—if there’s any type of blowout or leak in lines, he fixes it immediately. He’s also super knowledgeable about plants.” 

Stack enjoys the flexibility of her position, and being able to work together with her team despite being assigned individually to different sections around campus. “When I need help, I know that I can count on any of my co-workers to help me. They’ll all say yes,” Stack described. “When I want to work individually, there’s time off…. I actually prefer when it’s quiet. It’s just easier to work.”  

Stack admitted that the campus is not always pleasant at night. “Some spots are kind of eerie,” Stack acknowledged. “I usually don’t do the Smart Museum until later just because it’s kind of creepy to walk in there.” 

After I finished chatting with Stack, Rux drove me to my final stop, Ratner. I rode along with plow truck driver Crishawn Cook, one of the most senior members of the grounds department. “Right now I’m plowing Ratner. We normally do all the sidewalks and stairs on campus,” Cook said. 

“I’ve been working here for 20 years—I’m from the South Side of Chicago. This is my home,” he added. Cook started off shoveling for almost eight years before moving to driving the toolcat for about five. He has since been shoveling snow on the plow truck when on snow removal. 

Plow trucks are regular pick-up trucks that, like toolcats, have plows attached to them. Additionally, plow trucks have automated salters at the back of the trucks capable of spraying salt after the trucks have plowed snow.  

After years on the job, Cook understands the routines of student life inside and out. “It starts picking up around 6:30, 7:00; you normally see most of the students start coming to Ratner to work out a little bit. That’s why I try to get Regenstein and Ratner as soon as possible, because we know most of the students use those areas first,” Cook said. 

Cook commented on the mildness of this year’s winter compared to past winters. “This has been the lightest, easiest winter since I’ve been here. We barely got 20 inches of snow and we normally average 30-something inches of snow a year. Since I’ve been here, [since] 1997, I’ve seen some really bad ones.” Cook said. During the winter of 2011, Hyde Park received 20 inches of snow over two days. “We were working non-stop. They actually closed the campus one day…. We had help from other shops within facilities, so we all pretty much got the campus pretty clear, whereas the whole other city was buried with snow,” Cook said. 

“I just love being outside, taking care of this beautiful campus. My mum works here, so I’ve pretty much been on this campus almost 40 years of my life,” Cook added. 

After I spoke to Cook, Rux drove me from Ratner back to South Campus. 

“I came from an industry. I went to school for what’s called turf science, which is just grass basically,” Rux explained. “I worked at golf courses predominantly for my career, and it’s kind of…a drain. I came here kind of expecting to transition into a different field, and I ended up really liking it. Working in universities is definitely a different dynamic.” 

Rux explained that the job entails far more than snow removal. “We’ve had to pick up dead birds and have a freezer in our shop with dead birds, because they were doing a building strike study. I can show you sometime.” 

Rux finds snowplowing stressful but rewarding. “It’s kind of a love-hate [relationship] with snow,” Rux said. “You’re on the edge of success and failure. Snow can be stressful, but at the same time it’s kind of a good feeling to see the campus get cleared.” 

“The toughest part about the job is the weather as the unknown—with any season. It’s unpredictable. You’re kind of at Mother Nature’s will,” he said.

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