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Unsung heros

No capes necessary for CMU's support staff to be campus superheros

We’re unlikely to see them wearing spandex and a cape on a big movie screen anytime soon. They’re not comic book superheroes, but employees who work behind the scenes to create a better environment at Colorado Mesa University who are no less heroic to the people on campus.

Those 500-plus staffers who quietly support the mission at CMU — librarians, office workers, custodial staff, maintenance and so many others — aren’t in it for glory, but these unsung heroes say their rewards are plentiful.

“I generally work with a crew of four to six students, and that’s a part of the job I truly love,” said Mike Miller, who has been the only staff painter on CMU’s campus since 1998. “I always tell them I don’t want them to become painters —they’re here to get a higher education and find a better job than this one — but meanwhile they’re learning a skill that might help them through some of the harder times they might face in life.”

The opportunity to work with students is also part of the appeal for David Russell, a sous chef with Sodexo Food Services, who has helped cater events on the CMU campus for the past 10 years.

“If we’re working an event where we have to put out 400-500 plates in about 20-25 minutes, we’ll typically get help from the lacrosse team, the soccer team, the wrestling team or whoever,” Russell said. “It’s really cool to see them in action — their energy, their motivation, their work ethic.”

A Grand Junction native, Russell said he learned his way around the kitchen when he was eight or nine years old, chopping vegetables or chicken to mix with his Top Ramen or Totino’s Pizza, which he’d sprinkle with spices from his mother’s cupboard.

“She was a single mom and a full-time nurse, so I learned how to cook pretty early,” he said. “And that’s when I noticed I had a palate. I could taste things and fix them to my liking.”

At 20, Russell was hired by Sodexo as a breakfast cook and he began to learn the trade as a professional.

“The executive chef took me under his wing and I moved up the ranks,” he said. “I went from breakfast cook to night cook then to lead cook, and for the past two years I’ve been a sous chef.”

Miller grew up in Palm Springs, California, working for his father, who started a painting company with 12 employees and grew it into a business with 200 year-round employees.

“Dad told my older brother and me not to expect (to inherit) the company — he didn't want us to be painters,” Miller said. “So in 1994, I moved to Grand Junction with my wife and two children.”

When Miller started at Mesa in 1998 the college had about 3,700 students. He was hired to paint only the library and classrooms. Today, with enrollment around 11,000, he’s in charge of the entire campus.

“I buy about 1,000 gallons a year of our staple paint — one main color — and we keep 490 additional colors in stock. We almost need a library to keep track of them all,” he said. “We’ve looked at colleges in Denver and
Fort Collins, and most of them have no more than 40 colors.”

Working among CMU’s students is uplifting for Miller, who said they’re invariably welcoming and helpful when he shows up to do a job.

“They open and close doors for me. They’ll ask if I need help. They’re amazing… the best,” he said. “And I recognize that these people are my clients. If not for them, I wouldn't have a job here.” •

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Written by Dennis Taylor