Four of this year’s six winners of Bartels Awards for Custodial Service Excellence stand outside McGraw Hall: from left to right, Kathy Smith, Melissa Heuser, Rob Reis and Zorica Mrdjen. Not pictured are Alan James and Donnie Parker.

Dedicated, ‘nimble’ custodians honored for excellence

Before students could move into the university’s new Toni Morrison and Ganędagǫ: residence halls in August, countless details required attention behind the scenes.

In addition to ensuring the North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) facilities were clean as construction was completed, Building Care Department staff member Melissa Heuser hung hundreds of shower curtains, unboxed and installed nearly 900 desk lamps and deployed more than 1,000 trash and recycling bins, while also overseeing the delivery and assembly of custodial equipment.

For helping to ensure a successful move-in, Heuser was one of six Building Care employees honored Dec. 15 with a Bartels Award for Custodial Service Excellence, which recognized essential and often unsung work that has taken on even greater significance during the coronavirus pandemic.

The past year “has reconfirmed the importance of the work that the Building Care staff does every day, and you’ve played an important part in Cornell’s ability to have a successful academic year,” said Bob Pils, the department’s director, during a virtual ceremony.

The staff’s work helped make possible an in-person fall semester, the resumption of athletic competition and commencement ceremonies in May and September, Pils said. Along with supporting the NCRE openings, the department successfully reopened Balch Hall within two days to serve as a quarantine facility.

Rick Burgess, vice president for facilities and campus services, said the shift to a virtual awards ceremony was just the latest example of the department’s flexibility and resilience.

“It has been a hard year and a half, there’s no getting around that,” Burgess said. “The mark of a professional, though, is that you take the good times and the bad and you don’t compromise on quality, and you don’t compromise on the standard at which you work. And I have seen that day after day after day from you all.”

Also participating in the ceremony were Keith Barton ’94, associate vice president for facilities management and contract college facilities, and Rob Osborn, retired Building Care director.

Phil Bartels ’71, joined by his wife, Susan Bartels, and daughter Katie Bartels ’06, said the family was proud to support the “backbone” department that worked through challenging hours and weather and, since early 2020, “the darn little COVID bug.” He complimented the Building Care for team for its dedication and “nimbleness” through adverse circumstances.

“We thank you so much,” he said.

Since 2007, Bartels Award winners have been nominated by managers for their strong customer service orientation, reliability, team-building and communication skills, technical knowledge, support of the Cornell mission and positive attitude. They receive a framed certificate and a monetary award.

This year’s winners:

Melissa Heuser, who joined the department in 2005, took on a leadership role and shined in helping to open the NCRE residence halls, said Cindy Lockwood, associate director of Building Care. Lockwood said Heuser has “consistently and diligently worked to ensure a clean and safe environment in which students can flourish and do their best work.”

Alan James, nearing three decades of service at Cornell, was recognized for his positive attitude, sense of humor and knowing his third-shift job “inside and out.” A night supervisor at Uris Library praised James for flawless, professional work and for regularly asking how he could help, concluding, “You can’t ask for anything more than that from a person.”

Zorica Mrdjen, a Building Care employee since 2016, has won rapid promotions due to her work ethic, integrity and focus on customer service, Lockwood said. Mrdjen knew little English when she began her Cornell career but has made it the fourth language in which she’s fluent, and is now working toward a bachelor’s degree. A manager called Mrdjen a “natural-born leader and problem-solver” whose infectious attitude makes people smile.

Donnie Parker, a 32-year veteran of Cornell, is a “gem” who gives his all each day, always willing to lend a helping hand, take on extra work and provide excellent service, nominators wrote. One wrote that Parker works hard because he “wants the students, faculty and staff around him to have the best possible experience.”

Rob Reis, a university employee for 13 years, was praised for his meticulous, high-quality work, responsiveness to service requests and commitment to department standards. Reis is “very reliable, has a great attitude and is definitely a team player,” Lockwood said. Known for his passion for playing drums, Reis helped rebuild a drum kit for the William Keeton House on campus.

Kathy “Kate” Smith, a 21-year veteran, was instrumental in ensuring a smooth transition as the department recently added 10 buildings to its portfolio, said Hazel Hall, associate director of Building Care. According to her manager, Smith “has excellent work ethic and keeps the team moving forward. Staff enjoy working with her. She keeps the work fun while completing the task 110%.”

In addition to congratulating the six awardees, department leaders announced the recipients of $5,000 scholarships supported by the Bartels family, including one Building Care employee and 11 children of employees.