The Living, Working Campus, W&M During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Tracy Matthew Melton ‘85 - Library Board Member


At the foot of DuPont Hall, on Ukrop Way, a large, deep, neatly cut rectangular hole reveals sidewalk and roadway layers stacked like rock strata visible on an eroded hillside.

This rectangular hole, cut through the asphalt and carefully excavated for subsurface utility work, is just one of several campus construction

Ukrop Way Excavation below DuPont Hall, May 3, 2020
Ukrop Way Excavation below DuPont Hall, May 3, 2020

projects—a new W&M Arts Quarter, a dramatic Alumni House renovation and expansion, and hardscaping for Reveley Garden. And there’s much ongoing work as well.

Since most students left campus for spring break on March 6—and were unable to return because of the COVID-19 pandemic—I’ve walked campus several times every week. It’s been a long, beautiful late winter and spring, with comfortably warm weather, and rain enough for an especially colorful display of flowers, set against a richly green, leafy background, on campus and around town.

There’s a stunning quiet, yet campus has a heartbeat. Many operations continue. W&M employees and outside contractors continue to maintain the school’s physical property, keeping buildings shipshape, grooming the grounds, and constructing and renovating the infrastructure and facilities necessary for a growing, evolving institution.

Who do I typically see on campus? What do I see? Sometimes, and increasingly, local residents, alone or in pairs, out for a walk. Very occasionally a few students, sometimes studying in the Sunken Garden, sometimes walking together. At the beginning of May, a few more students are around. A fair number celebrated on campus on Friday afternoon, May 1, the last day of classes. Many gathered on the terrace outside Sadler Center, and someone had set up a hammock in a tree along the Sunken Garden. On May 2, I saw a student in her graduation gown, taking photos with her father. My own daughter Abigail, a graduating senior, wants to do the same when she’s back in town next week.

David, from Facilities Management, painting at Blow Memorial Hall, May 3, 2020
David, from Facilities Management, painting at
Blow Memorial Hall, May 3, 2020

But chiefly there are people working on campus. Their vehicles are most visible. W&M police cars are on patrol. I see facilities management vehicles all over, driving down the road and parked outside of buildings. A facilities employee in a pickup truck stops at the outdoor trashcans to remove the old bags and place new ones. Contractor vehicles—mostly vans and pickup trucks—are around too, often singly, but lined up along College Terrace and Bright Street for the Alumni House construction.

There are heavier vehicles too—extended boom lifts at Blow Memorial Hall and the Alumni House, a line of dump trucks rumbling down Ukrop Way from the DuPont hole in the ground, yellow bucket loaders shuddering down the same road, a large yellow excavator on crawler tracks gouging the earth next to the Botetourt Complex, near the outdoor tennis courts.

Contractors and facilities folks often work inside, remodeling, updating, or servicing electrical and mechanical systems, but are sometimes at their trucks and vans, sorting tools and equipment, or chatting together, or on their phone. Housekeeping employees step out of buildings to sweep or remove trash, or just to head home at the end of the day. I remember three from housekeeping laughing on a break by an exterior wall at Miller Hall, home of the Mason School of Business. Facilities management grounds and gardens workers laugh together on the bricked walkway between the Wren Building and Ewell Hall. I speak to David, from facilities management, who is painting window frames on Blow Memorial Hall on a sunny, quiet Sunday morning.

Work sometimes disrupts the prevailing silence. Besides the rumble of heavy equipment, the most noticeable sounds on campus are the roar of lawnmowers and the whine of gas-powered string trimmers. Grounds maintenance continues, and most rainless days grounds and gardens workers are busy around campus. That’s why the Sunken Garden looks as grand as ever and those flowers have been so brilliant.

Are these workers safe during the pandemic? Sincerely, I hope so, and that thought is often on my mind. Construction has not been active on the Arts Quarter, where old PBK Hall stands just a ghostly steel framework along Jamestown Road, and little has been done on Reveley Garden in recent weeks. Many employees work singly. I haven’t seen more than a few together, and those taking some time to talk and joke together seem a little farther apart than in more carefree times. Many of the tradespeople putting the finishing touches on the Alumni House,

Alumni House Renovation and Expansion, May 4, 2020
Alumni House Renovation and Expansion, May 4, 2020

where the greatest numbers work, are wearing facemasks. I do hope everyone is trying their utmost to maintain safe spaces and protect one another.

Looking at those sidewalk and roadway layers revealed by the excavation on Ukrop Way, below DuPont Hall, reminds me that even in these very challenging times, W&M is moving forward, literally putting down the newest layer there, below DuPont, and more broadly shaping the layers, physical and otherwise, that will serve as the foundation for the school’s future. It is an ambitious project, advanced by so many. As does W&M, so do we all, working together, being respectful of each other, trusting in better days.