Can Do

Near the end of February in 1974, a wind storm knocked out power on the north end of the Kenyon campus, and the elevator in the Caples Residence Hall got stuck between the first and second floors-with two female students inside. Security rushed over. The Gambier Fire Department arrived on the scene. But there was a problem: the only doors allowing access to the elevator shaft were on the ground floor, beneath the elevator car, and the ninth floor, seven stories up.

The rescuers talked about releasing the elevator brake and pulling the car up to the ninth floor. Even though the mechanism would have prevented the car from falling, the idea of tampering with the brake had little appeal, especially to the two girls. Nobody knew quite what to do, until "one Tom Lepley, electrician," as the Collegian wrote, borrowed a pair of gloves from a student, slithered down the elevator cable from the ninth floor, lifted the girls through the trap door in the car ceiling, and managed to open the second-floor door into the building.

It's a typical Tom Lepley moment, not because he regularly slides down braided steel cables to save damsels in distress, but because he has made a career out of mastering the College's inner landscape, from boiler rooms to belfries, so that students and professors can go about their business without, as it were, getting stuck. Whenever the infrastructure offers up a knot, he finds a way to untangle it, usually at minimal expense and with an eye to preventing the problem from happening again. (In the case of the Caples elevator, he arranged to get special keys that would allow for access to the shaft from any floor, no matter where the car had stopped.) And he does it all without losing his cool.

In his thirty-five years at Kenyon, "one Tom Lepley" has risen from electrician to superintendent of buildings and grounds, and then to clerk of the works, responsible for overseeing immensely complex construction projects like the science quad and the new athletic center. He has become an indispensable figure, consulted and trusted by everyone right up to the trustees. He functions as something like a chief engineer, in-house consultant, strategist, planner, trouble-shooter, penny-pincher, and general manager all rolled into one. Nobody knows the campus better. Few have had as great an impact on its efficient operation.

When former President Robert A. Oden Jr. was leaving Kenyon for his new job at Carleton College in 2002, Vice President for Finance Joseph G. Nelson told him, "There's just one employee I absolutely don't want you to try to hire, and that's Tom Lepley." Oden grinned and said, "No promises."

The best way to appreciate the scope of Lepley's role-the depth of his knowledge and his command of detail-is to take his insider's tour of the nearly completed Kenyon Center for Fitness, Recreation, and Athletics (FRA). While greeting workers on the construction site and taking mental notes on their requests, he will enthuse about air handlers, heat wheels, pumps, pipes, and ducts. He'll anatomize the new pool, from its concrete backbone (1,000 cubic yards, poured fourteen inches thick) to its eventual tile and stainless-steel finishes. He'll explain the system by which curtains of warm dry air will continually flow against the glass walls of the building to prevent condensation. He'll provide statistics on the number of air filters in the building (1,200) and the size of its cooling tower (2,300 square feet, "as big as my whole house").

"This is the neatest thing in the whole place," he'll say, standing on the mezzanine level and looking out over the indoor track, gesturing not at any one thing in particular but at the striking absence of things, the fact that the feeling of openness and light in the building depends on the ingenious concealment of its inner workings. He especially relishes the part of the tour where he can expound on FRA features that most people will never see. He's entirely in his element twenty-five feet below ground level, in the center's cavernous basement, where metal doors lead from the squash and racquetball area to a vast other realm, 30,000 square feet that Lepley calls "the brains of the building," where intricate arrays of machinery condition the essential elements of heating, cooling, water, and air.

The most revealing aspect of the tour, however, will be the many changes that Lepley points out-alterations in design or construction that were adopted, often at his suggestion, to save money, avoid problems, or make the future maintenance of the building easier. Changes have ranged from the addition of joints in pipelines (to facilitate disassembly and provide easier access to areas that might need repairs) to a different style of flooring for the weight room (to facilitate repair when a student drops a barbell and leaves a dent).

He is proudest, perhaps, of the money-saving changes he's proposed, in close collaboration with the Albert M. Higley Company, the construction manager for FRA, and the Gund Partnership, architects. Lepley loves the phrase "cost avoidance," and on every major job he keeps a list of items under that heading. The FRA cost-avoidance list includes such notations as "change plasma screen supplier" (savings: $10,000), "revise south wall" ($40,000), "revise duct system" ($100,000), and "site electrical relocated" ($185,000). As of mid-February, the savings on the list totaled $628,000. Higley representatives put the actual figure at more than $1 million.

Anybody who has ever renovated a kitchen knows that construction is far from a tidy process whereby an architect translates an owner's desires into a set of unalterable plans that a contractor simply implements. There's nothing fixed or static about the process; it's dynamic, and can be slippery (as can the contractor). Now consider FRA, a $65-million project involving 263,000 square feet of space, highly specialized equipment (pool filters, anti-glare glass, "sprung" floors for aerobics classes), and more than eighty subcontractors, all of whom have their own priorities and interests, which don't always coincide with those of the College.

That's why, starting with the construction of Storer Hall in 1998-99 and continuing through the science quad project (2000-02) and then FRA, Kenyon established the position of "clerk of the works." It's a term that goes back at least to the seventeenth century, but it means, essentially, "owner's rep": somebody whose sole, unswerving interest is Kenyon.

"My job," Lepley explains, "is to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck." That means scrupulous attention to every stage of construction, from scrutinizing bids and checking out the reputation of the bidders through "commissioning"-that is, testing all the systems.

Since the construction of FRA got underway in March 2004, Lepley has made a point of walking through the job site and assessing progress just about every day. "When the workers see the owner's rep out there in the rain and mud, it makes a difference," he says.

"Tom gets instant credibility with the subcontractors," says Douglas Zipp, the special assistant to the dean of students for student facilities development. "He knows so much about construction, and he knows everything there is to know about Kenyon's campus. With Tom, the contractors understand that the College means business. They have to do a good job, because he knows what he's talking about."

When disputes arise between subcontractors, Lepley intercedes to remind them that their overriding concern has to be Kenyon. "The discussions can get pretty heated," says Zipp. "Tom steps in and says, 'The College wants this done, and one of you is responsible for doing it. It's up to you to figure it out, or we'll figure it out for you.' He's fair and thoughtful, but it's no-nonsense."

Those who have worked with Lepley remark on his extraordinary ability to forge comfortable, professional, trust-filled relationships with people at every rung of the social or educational ladder. Whether he's bantering with workmen or giving a progress report to the trustees, he displays the same unaffected, low-key manner, helpful and straightforward with occasional touches of dry humor.

"Tom is great to work with as a person," says Associate Professor of Physics Paula Turner, who served on a committee that helped plan the new science buildings. "He's warm and open. He's flexible. He's willing to believe that a faculty member can learn about construction and be an intelligent partner in a project. One of the things I liked best about Tom was that he would listen to us and could translate our constraints and needs into an explanation that was meaningful to someone who was doing the actual construction."

She credits Lepley with following through on a host of small but significant adjustments in response to professorial requests. The physicists, for example, wanted their labs to have the electrical outlets in overhead service carriers. "But in some labs," Turner explains, "we do 'video physics'-we throw things and videotape them. If the overhead carrier were too low, we'd lose our sight lines, but if it were too high, it would interfere with the light fixtures. Tom caught that and got it resolved by making some changes in the placement of the lights. It sounds like trivial stuff, but it turns out to have a lot to do with the liveability of the building."

When Lepley told his family, around Christmas of 1970, that he was going to work as an apprentice electrician at Kenyon, the news was greeted with some wariness. A favorite aunt of his had always gone out of her way to avoid driving through Gambier, because she was afraid of the college boys. How would Tom be treated by the students, who had the reputation of being rich snobs? Wouldn't the professors look down on a twenty-five-year-old townie whose formal education had stopped after high school?

Thomas V. Lepley had grown up just a few miles from the Kenyon campus-his father managed what is now Glen Hill Orchard. After grade school in Gambier and graduation from Howard High School, he worked for an oil exploration company, traveling to Louisiana, and then for Cooper Energy Services in Mount Vernon, where he started his apprenticeship as an electrician but ended up on the road again, servicing engines. He was in West Virginia on a job when his wife, Shirley, called to tell him that, through a string of Knox County connections, his name had come to the attention of Dick Ralston, Kenyon's new superintendent of buildings and grounds.

"I always had a pretty good reputation that I could do just about anything," says Lepley, reflecting on why Ralston hired him, "and if I didn't know how to do it, I'd learn it."

Ralston, who would go on to lead the maintenance department for nineteen years, seconds that assessment. "Tom was just one of those people-mechanically, he's absolutely amazing. He learns things so quickly it swamps your mind. You could tell him what you wanted, and you only had to tell him once. It got done. One way or another, Tom got it finished.

"He became an outstanding electrician," continues Ralston. "Within a year, I was pretty well convinced that he could go up the line. It was his attitude, his ability to remember things and think past the immediate problem. Tom was always looking ahead to see how we could improve things."

Ralston gradually increased Lepley's responsibilities. He became the supervisor of skilled trades in 1978 and was given the special assignment of developing energy-conservation measures for the campus. By 1986, he was manager of mechanical services, Ralston's chief lieutenant.

He proved himself a good man to have around in emergencies. Lepley helped keep the water running during the Freeze of '77, and he was part of the crew that kept the whole campus operating during the famous Blizzard of '78. He once rigged up a welder to provide electricity to a wedding in the chapel when a construction mishap had caused a power outage. He participated in a second elevator rescue one night when a bunch of students decided to see how many people they could fit into the Chalmers lift. Eighteen squeezed in-and tripped the emergency mechanism that locks the door.

"We had to open the hatch on top of the car," Lepley recalls, chuckling. "The students were getting pretty uncomfortable. As we took those kids out one by one, security was there to write down their names."

Lepley learned every nook and cranny of the Kenyon campus. During the years when the College operated the water system for the whole village of Gambier, Lepley would climb the water tower to change probes. He has seen the huge tank hidden in the superstructure above the Rosse Hall stage: it gathered water from the roof and supplied the showers, back when Rosse was the College gym. He has worked in the attic space of the chapel, where the organ pipes used to be, and in the belfry of Old Kenyon. (The Old Kenyon bell, which dates from the 1820s, used to ring out the class schedule and is still rung to welcome new presidents. But, between inaugurations, maintenance keeps the bell clapper in a safe place, because students used to sneak into the belfry to ring the bell, or steal it.)

Meanwhile, he developed a reputation for keeping his cool. Lepley has always loved training horses. "They're such big animals, but if you know how to handle them, they're like putty in your hands," he says. "The biggest thing is to remain calm, because your calm will bleed over to the horse. Use soft words and friendly pats, but be firm."

That approach works in the sometimes contentious setting of the campus as well. Lepley had to explain to angry students why the College decided to demolish, rather than try to repair, the original Horn Gallery, a beloved old barn that had plenty of character but dangerous structural problems. When tempers flare over construction noise or the decision to cut down a tree, Lepley's voice tends to have a soothing effect. Professor of Chemistry Emeritus Owen York, who coordinated planning for the science project, says: "Tom can be very persuasive, in a way that doesn't seem to threaten anyone."

Joe Nelson explains why Lepley was the obvious choice to succeed Ralston as superintendent of buildings and grounds. "He knows everything about the place. You can't train that, you can't hire that. He's smart, with hands-on experience. Give me a guy that has turned the screws and tightened the bolts. And Tom has the largest can-do spirit of anyone I've ever met. I've never heard him say, 'That's too much for us, that's beyond our ability, we have to hire people to take this on.' He takes it on."

Lepley is also tenaciously devoted to the College. "His biggest weakness might be that he's too loyal," Nelson observes, "that he cares too much. If someone bad-mouths Kenyon, he shows it."

The College gave Lepley the top maintenance job in 1993. His success in that role stemmed, in large measure, from his gifts as a "people person." As the head of a department responsible for everything from cleaning bathrooms to setting up for Commencement, he had to turn his attention both outward (to professors, students, administrators, campus visitors) and inward (to the tradesmen, custodians, and groundskeepers of the maintenance staff). Union negotiations, which have sometimes been tense at Kenyon, presented a particularly delicate challenge. "Tom can be very staunch," says Ralston. "You have to be."

In 2000, Lepley received the Distinguished Service Award, honoring exceptional accomplishment and dedication by a Kenyon administrator. The award recognized not only his career but also his community spirit: by that time, people across Gambier knew him as a cub scout volunteer, a generous source of advice on anything having to do with construction and repair, and an incomparable Santa Claus at countless holiday parties.

It also recognized, implicitly, that, notwithstanding his aunt's fears, the Lepley family has happily embraced the College. Shirley, Tom's wife of forty years, works as a secretary in maintenance. One of their three sons, Kurt, works as a Kenyon plumber.

When he became clerk of the works in 1998, Lepley technically went on leave from his post as head of buildings and grounds. Everett "Ed" Neal, a maintenance colleague with his own impressive knack for problem-solving, took over as acting superintendent.

And this spring, the College announced that Lepley will not be returning to the superintendent's job. With FRA nearing completion, Kenyon has asked him to take on another special assignment. Ed Neal will become the permanent superintendent starting on July 1, and Lepley will tackle the long-needed job of thoroughly documenting-and digitizing-every facet of the physical plant, from buildings to data conduits. The goal is to ensure that, for the entire campus, the College has fully accurate information that is easy to store, organize, consult, transmit, and copy. The availability of this information, in a form suitable for the age of computer-aided design, will be invaluable as Kenyon undertakes construction and renovation projects in the future.

The details sound daunting. But Lepley, who in theory can think about retirement in a few years, is eager to get started. His days of sliding down elevator cables are probably over, but he's always ready for a challenge. Looking ahead, he says: "I don't want to coast."

Back to Top