Whistling while he works

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You’ll often hear Clarence Slomp coming before you see him. His cheerful whistling has echoed through the hallways and stairwells of Lethbridge College for almost 35 years.

“It’s nice and relaxing,” says Slomp as he hustles up a flight of stairs in the Paterson building. “Sometimes there’s a lot of stress in this place, but maybe if more people would learn how to whistle…” he says, his thought trailing off with a hearty laugh.

Slomp’s laugh is nearly as distinctive as his whistling. Since beginning work as part of the college’s maintenance staff in 1982, he has had a physical hand in shaping the look of the college, while his upbeat attitude and beaming smile have also helped influence the feel of the campus.

“I love Monday mornings,” says Slomp, the emphasis firmly placed on the word “love.” “Some people come in and they are grumpy, but I come in whistling. You woke up this morning, you’re alive, you’re healthy, you have a job. What do you have not to be happy about?

“Yep, I love Mondays.”

Technically, Slomp’s job title is building and ground maintenance supervisor/project lead, but what it really means is that he is in charge of nearly all of the physical components of the campus. If something is being built, moved or fixed – from a floor to a wall to an electrical outlet – he probably has a hand in it.

It’s generally quiet when Slomp arrives on campus in the morning. At 7:45 a.m., he pours himself a coffee in the maintenance shop on the southeast corner of the campus, but it’s only a matter of moments before his phone starts ringing. First it’s a call about on-going repairs to the men’s steam room in the Physical Education building. Then a member of his team calls in sick, a blow since he’s already down one person as his head mechanic is off serving jury duty, although “he tells me that unless it comes down to fisticuffs, he’ll be back tomorrow,” laughs Slomp. After checking in with his grounds crew about on-going parking lot painting and treatment of infected elm trees around campus, he sets off towards his office.

Picking up trash along the way, Slomp’s eyes are always scouring the campus, looking for anything out of place or in need of repairs. Once in his office, he logs into his computer, checks in with other members of the facilities team and learns that he’ll need to lead an afternoon tour of the new trades and technologies facility. Then it’s back on his feet and out the door.

“My chair doesn’t get warm very often, I’ll tell you that,” he says as he heads for the Instructional building.

Slomp examines new flooring being installed on the second floor, arranges for boxes to be sent to an office that’s about to be renovated and stops in to send a gentle reminder to staff after spotting tape being used on the painted walls. Like a whirlwind, he’s back out of the I.B. and bound for the Phys Ed building and a first-hand look at the steam room project. While he’s in the area he stops to check the new varnish on the floor of the Val Matteotti gymnasium, but it’s only a brief pause before his phone rings again – there’s a pigeon caught in a trap on the roof of the I.B. He heads back there to take care of that. By 9 a.m., in just over an hour, he’s already visited five buildings – and his day is just getting started.

“My days fly by,” says Slomp. “It’s always something new. That’s the best part about being on maintenance – you don’t know from day to day what’s coming at you and I love that.” It’s entirely possible that Slomp has spent more time on the Lethbridge College campus than anyone else in school history, and yet, he never imagined the college would lead to a career. His first steps on the campus were as an apprenticeship student, working towards his carpenter certificate. “My first year here for my apprenticeship was in 1979, and that was in [what is now] the Criminal Justice lab – that used to be a carpenter shop.”

He finished two years of his apprenticeship training before the company he was working for folded in the wake of the economic challenges of early-1980s Alberta. Newly married and now unemployed, his wife, Judy, convinced the 22-year-old to head back to the college – not as a student, but as part of the summer painting crew. There was just one problem. “I hate painting,” says Slomp.

As luck would have it, he never had to pick up a brush. On his first day he was assigned to work with the maintenance team, where he was a natural fit. “If you work hard, it pays off,” says Slomp. “Because eight years later I was a supervisor. That was never my plan.

“It was Jan. 1, 1990, that I started as a supervisor and I haven’t looked back.”

By mid-morning, he has been called back to the Phys Ed building for an update on the problematic steam room. There have been no major changes to the area since the construction of the P.E. building 26 years ago. Slomp was on staff when the facility was built, as he also was for Centre Core, the 30 Ave. residence, the Instructional building and Kodiak House residence.

He’s helped shape and execute some of the largest construction projects in school history, but at this moment, it’s a solution for a bench in the steam room that has him at a standstill.

“We’ve tried an oak bench, but it just doesn’t last,” explains Slomp. “We tried a plastic one, but in the steam it lets off a terrible smell, so it’s just sitting over here now,” he adds, waving his hand towards the shower wall.

Francis Rankin, the college’s project manager, notes that the YMCA uses a concrete bench and agrees to go take a look at it later in the day. Rankin is one of the people Slomp works closest with; their paths intertwine throughout the day. He also never goes too long without talking to construction and maintenance lead Ron Farrell. The two have shared an office for so long that neither can remember when it happened (but they do know where the giant painting of a cowboy campfire that adorns their wall came from: “Finance was going to get rid of it, and Ron says ‘we should put that up in our office,’ and I said ‘that’s a great idea,’” laughs Slomp).

“We do try to get under his skin sometimes,” laughs Farrell (Construction Technology 1979, Carpentry 1984), about the good-natured ribbing that is a staple of their work days. “But, to have a good nature like Clarence does, and do it with a smile, and laugh about the things that go wrong is incredibly rare.”

Otherwise, Slomp spends much of his day alone, while not being alone at all. As he paces across the campus, his whistling is interrupted by saying “hello” to almost everyone he passes. He is a popular figure, greeted with smiles everywhere he goes.
Before breaking for lunch, he has one final job. The Canadian flag that flies outside the main doors of the campus is tattered. He lowers it and replaces it with a new maple leaf in a task that’s as symbolic as it is functional. It’s the sort of thing that generally goes unappreciated and unnoticed, but it’s how Slomp likes it.

“We don’t want people to think about the fact that we’re here,” he says. “We are behind the scenes people. We just want everything to be great for the people here.”

For his lunch break he heads off to his self-described favourite part of campus – the maintenance shop, where his day started. Here he can often be found catching up on episodes of Hogan’s Heroes, chatting with other maintenance members or just enjoying the peace and quiet in an otherwise frantic day.

“It’s a place of sanctuary, I guess,” says Slomp. “Over in the shop you’re left alone a little bit.” For this brief period of time there are no projects to worry about, no crisis to solve, no fires to put out – figuratively or literally. That hasn’t always been the case over 34 years on the job.

He once doused a fire outside of the 30 Ave. residence with just dirt and his bare hands. Another time he leapt into action when lint caught fire in a duct leading to the roof of the automotive shop. “The fire department was on its way, but they weren’t here yet,” remembers Slomp, who scampered to the roof himself. “I’ve already got the cap off, I’ve got a bunch of snow and I just start filling the whole thing up with snow. The fire department shows up and I’m like, ‘sorry guys, I think I already got it out.’

“I got in trouble for that,” he laughs.

He also got in trouble for re-entering the Andrews building after tarps caught on fire in a stairwell during renovations. “When there’s an emergency, I’ll just react, not thinking, and just get stuff done. Because people are in peril and I want to make sure they’re safe.”

His other out-of-the-ordinary adventures on campus include stepping in to help during gas line leaks and water pipe bursts, cleaning up after storms that toppled trees on campus and leading evacuations following bomb threats.

But the magnitude of emergency events or the threat of them taking place has never put a damper on Slomp’s enthusiasm for his job. “I never get a sense of dread about going to work,” he says. “The college has never treated me wrong; this has been a great place to work, and I work with an awesome crew.”

It’s not just on campus where he makes a significant difference. Slomp also dedicates countless hours as a church cadet leader and is approaching his 100th donation to Canadian Blood Services.

Back in his office, just after 1 p.m., Slomp is getting a group from the Registrar’s Office and Student Services attired for a tour of the second phase of the under-construction trades and technologies facility. The $65 million project is the largest addition in the school’s history and Slomp has been on the front lines of the planning and construction process.

“It has been so exciting to be a part of this whole thing, to watch it grow,” he says. He leads the group outside and up to the second floor of the facility, pointing out how the state-of-the-art building will look once it’s completed: a classroom here, a welding shop there. He makes sure to get out to the job site on a daily basis to keep tabs on how the project is progressing.

“How they’ve made it work is such an advantage for these new apprentices coming down the pipe,” says Slomp. “They have it a lot easier than we used to.”

The new facility has been a major commitment for Slomp, one that will eventually pull him away from his regular duties to focus exclusively on preparing it for the students who will arrive in the completed building in August 2017. It will also be his magnum opus, as he intends to retire shortly after construction is completed.

“The biggest thing when I do go is, I will miss the people,” says Slomp. “Especially the older ones who have been here a long time too. That’s going to be the hardest part I think.”

Slomp has dedicated most of his life to making Lethbridge College a better place to be for those who study and work inside its walls. It’s become a second home to him, and like any home, he’s kept his family close. Two of his three sons took their apprenticeship training at the college. And it’s his wife who can be credited with keeping him here for all these years.

“When they were building tech in ’84, they had job openings and I was thinking ‘maybe I should get back into construction,’” says Slomp. “I got the job, and I was talking it over with my wife, and she said ‘you’ve got it pretty good at the college, you love what you do, why would you want to change that?’ And I thought, ‘you know what? You’re right.’” Nearly four decades after he first stepped foot on campus as a young apprenticeship student, he has become an indispensable part of the culture of Lethbridge College.

“As long as everyone is smiling on Monday mornings when they come to work, then we’re good,” he laughs as he gets ready to leave. With another day finished, the clock hits 4:45 p.m. as he heads for his truck, his eyes still scanning his campus, the sound of his joyful whistling filling the air.

Clarence Slomp - Whistling While He Works

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