Emory Report
July 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 34

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July 9, 2007
Making Emory shine

by Carol clark

Late at night, when the campus is calm, quiet and seemingly deserted, James Davis is hard at work. As the night superintendent for Facilities Management Building Services, he oversees an after-hours crew in charge of cleaning more than 100 buildings of the University, including the Oxford Campus.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything, the night shift,” Davis says. “I like the atmosphere. It’s quiet, so quiet. You don’t have the rigmarole of all the phone calls. In the day, everybody’s pulling at you to get your attention. At night, people don’t feel as stressed. You can focus on just doing your job.”

A native of Jacksonville, Fla., Davis moved to Atlanta in 1983. He worked in custodial positions in a hotel, a hospital and a medical center before joining Emory 12 years ago.

“By far, this is the best job I’ve ever had,” Davis says. “At some of the other places I’ve worked, I could only go so far, but the University provides you with opportunities.”

Just four months after Davis took a position as a senior custodian at Emory, he received his first promotion. He moved up to superintendent in 2003.

During his varied Emory career, Davis has donned hair net, footies, gown, gloves, mask and goggles to scrub down a biosafety level 3 lab and helped clean up after a pipe burst in the Atwood Chemistry building in 1996, flooding three floors with a foot-and-a-half of water. “We’ve had some interesting floods, I’ll tell you,” he says. “Everybody from Building Services comes out and picks up a wet vacuum and we just take care of it.”

Building Services employees “get a wealth of training to make sure we stay safe,” Davis says. “We know what’s potentially dangerous and how to avoid it.”

In his current role as night superintendent, Davis may visit as many as 10 buildings in a single evening. “It’s a lot of ground to cover,” he says. “I make sure that the work is getting done and that I’m there for employees to come to if they have any needs, so they don’t have to wait until the morning.”

When his wife, Penelope, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Davis was glad that he was off during the daytime, so he could drive her to doctor appointments. The couple’s four children were still growing up at that time. Penelope passed away in 2003.

“I had a lot of support from my colleagues at Emory, to get me through the trying times, and I had a lot of those,” he says.

One goal of the team at Building Services is to “try to make sure we stay ahead of every other University in sustainability,” he says. That includes a major green-cleaning program that began in recent years, as Emory expanded its number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings and made sustainability a key part of its strategic plan.

Building Services began moving to Green Seal cleaning products with low amounts of volatile organic compounds, toxins and metals. Special door matting, to minimize the amount of dirt entering buildings on the soles of shoes, is now used whenever possible, along with specialized equipment, such as dual-motor vacuums with better filtration systems.

Davis was charged with testing of the new products and equipment, along with training of staff to ensure effective implementation. For his leadership in green-building operation and maintenance, Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives recently presented Davis with a Sustainability Innovators Award, but Davis says it was a group effort.

“It was a large project, requiring the work of a lot of people, and we did it all together,” Davis says. “It takes a lot of time, to make sure the green products we use can actually do the job and are safe and cost-effective to use. We had to make sure our employees knew how to use the products effectively. And we’re constantly educating faculty and staff about what ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ mean. We try to include our customers into everything we’re doing. The buy-in helps you.”

Green cleaning measures have improved the working atmosphere for everyone at Emory, he says. “When I first started in the cleaning business, it was something. The chemicals a lot of times bothered me. I’d have asthma attacks and sinus and allergy problems. I’ve watched the green-cleaning movement develop and I can see how it benefits people in the long run. I can breathe. Our employees feel better, too, when they’re working. And people who have offices in the buildings have been telling us that they feel healthier.”

Davis offers this general cleaning tip: “Read the directions on the label. Make sure you understand what a product does and how to use it. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. Always read it for yourself.”

While Davis is a leader in keeping Emory clean and green, “at home, I’m just Dad,” he says.

His youngest daughter Camilla, 17, who is still in high school, supervises the housework. “I clean the kitchen and bathrooms and the kids take care of everything else,” he says. “They definitely have to take care of their own bedrooms, because I don’t want to touch them. The boys are sometimes difficult,” he says of Ashton, 20, and Andrew, 22. “Sometimes I have to ask, ‘What’s that awful smell coming from your room?’ But Camilla will get on them.”

Despite the sometime sketchy states of their bedrooms, both of Davis’ sons are hard-working members of Emory’s custodial staff. “Both of them came to Emory as temps. They worked hard, got interviewed and got hired,” Davis says proudly.

His oldest daughter, Tiffany, has left home, but he sees her often since he is a hands-on grandfather to her three-year-old son, Donavan.

“He’s my little roughhouse and my riding partner,” Davis says. “Me and him can get in the car and go riding for any reason. We both love Buster’s ice cream.”