by Eri Izawa
He wasn’t what most of society calls “cool”, weighing enough that XXXL shirts wouldn’t fit him. His plain brown uniform and dark brown hair got drenched with sweat when he wheezed his way up and down stairs.
However, for many years he was guardian of the MIT undergraduate dormitories East Campus and Senior House. As night watchman he stopped to talk and gossip with students. He remembered names and wanted to know how you were — not just the usual hey-how-are-you-bye, but how you *really* were, and hey-don’t-worry, you’ll-be-OK.
Big Jimmy enjoyed yakking with students, perhaps a bit too long but in addition to dishing out the latest Institute dirt, he warned about recent dormitory thefts and dangers. He was genuinely concerned and caring, and showed gentlemanly courtesy to female students.
He talked reassuringly to students who’d failed exams. When rumors spread of a depressed student last seen muttering about suicide Big Jimmy leapt into action. He was the only night watchman who’d heard, because he was the only one who listened. We knew we were lucky to have someone like Jimmy on our side.
When the university tried to move him across campus, the protest was loud and insistent: Keep Big Jimmy at East Campus! The university relented. When he was nominated for the James N. Murphy Award, we students rallied and got him one. He was the only recipient that year to get a standing ovation of cheering students. You could see the tears in his eyes.
The MIT News Office quotes the nominators’ words from 1991: “James E. Roberts, night watchman at East Campus House: ‘Big Jimmy serves as protector, physician, counselor and parent to MIT students in their hours of greatest need. He has saved lives directly through his cool and courageous actions and he may have saved lives indirectly through his kind words and deeds.'”
Yes, no doubt he saved lives over the years, directly or indirectly, because he earned students’ trust in a way very few outsiders could.
In 2001 I drifted by my old dorm. It’d been roughly 10 years since I’d graduated, 10 long, crazy years since I’d lived in those buildings, hanging out with fellow students and the night watchman.
The new students at my dorm didn’t know me (naturally), but Big Jimmy remembered me, wanted to know, really know, what was going on. As I was unemployed, he was eager to provide certain job contacts (not really needed). But that was just the sort of person he was — a bit too nosy, a bit too gossipy, yet always willing to do anything for “his” students.
January 21, 2005 Big Jimmy passed on to the other side. Thinking of East Campus, it’s hard to picture it without Big Jimmy’s voice echoing down the hall, or his familiar form pausing by the lounge or leaning by an open doorway.
I will miss our utterly unforgettable dormitory guardian, with his true heart of gold.