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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Snow Men

Published: January 29, 2010
Section: Features

The Snow Men: Supervisor of Grounds and Vehicles Dennis Finn (third from left) poses with his crew who are on call 24-hours a day during the winter to remove snow, wherever it falls on campus.  (From left to right):  Tony Bonica, Roberto Guerrero, Dennis Finn, Carmine Martorilli,Jose Santana, Mike Greene, Ricardo Rivera, Mike Bellan.  Not pictured is Juan Ortega.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

The Snow Men: Supervisor of Grounds and Vehicles Dennis Finn (third from left) poses with his crew who are on call 24-hours a day during the winter to remove snow, wherever it falls on campus. (From left to right): Tony Bonica, Roberto Guerrero, Dennis Finn, Carmine Martorilli,Jose Santana, Mike Greene, Ricardo Rivera, Mike Bellan. Not pictured is Juan Ortega.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

It rained all day long on Monday. It rained all day long and the wind blew hard—breaking umbrellas and soaking shivering students as it pushed bloated raindrops sideways. Walkways became streams, doorways of buildings became safe havens and the shoes of anyone not wearing rain boots became soggy.

On the whole, the weather was miserable.

But for Dennis Finn, it was a welcome sight.

“Boy, was I happy to see this rain,” he says.

Finn is Supervisor of Grounds and Vehicles Services in Brandeis’ Facilities Department, which, in the winter, translates to being head of snow removal. And because Monday’s inclement weather washed away the snow, it essentially did the work for Finn and the seven other men whose job it is to clear the university’s streets and sidewalks during the winter months.

Driving around the Brandeis campus Monday in one of the university’s four drop spreaders (known to laymen as sanding trucks), Finn explains that, as a snow man, he has favored types of precipitation.

Rain is always the best, so long as it doesn’t freeze, then dry snow (the colder outside, the better), then heavy wet snow and the worst is heavy wet snow followed by freezing rain.

Finn graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and wanted to go into landscaping.

“But, if you’re going to work with green in New England, you’ve got to do snow removal,” he explains. “There’s not much else to do in the winter.”

The university has four snowplows, and six other vehicles to which a plow can be attached. The largest of these vehicles are two dump trucks with Gross Vehicle Weights of 34,000 pounds each. The trucks each contain a double hydraulic plow hooked on the front to push the snow, and a bucket on the back to pile it up in parking lots. The “loader” can plow through almost anything, unless the snow is too wet and falls too fast.

If it does, there is what Finn describes as “a battle between the weight of the machine and the weight of the snow.”

“At that point, you just have to back up and hit it again and again and hope the motion helps move the mound,” Finn says, pounding one fist against the other to signify the epic collision.

Finn talks about plowing snow with a vigor he calls “Tonka toy syndrome.” An average sized man with glasses and a baseball hat on, his face brightens and flushes as he talks about his plows.

He motions with his hands, and his voice quickens, and when he explains that if you can’t keep up with the snow, the danger is “losing the lot,” (or being unable to plow) you know that it is a devastating fate to be avoided at all costs.

And it is. Parking lots are plowed in a similar pattern to which skating rinks are zambonied. The plow cuts the lot in half, and then circles around, slowly chipping away at the banks until it is clear. This can be severely complicated and lead to the loss of the lot if it is full of cars, which happens often at a university where overnight parking is routine.

Lost lots take time to be recovered. If a lot, such as T lot, which usually takes an hour to plow, is lost, it could take up to three hours to get it back.

When you work against the clock like Finn and his team, three hours is a lot of time, which is why they are on call 24 hours a day for the entire winter.

If it begins to snow after work hours, Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan calls Finn and tells him to come in. Depending on the size of the storm, Finn’s team comes in too.

“You know that natural response in you when there’s a blizzard and you just want to curl up in bed and stay there like a bear in hibernation?” Finn asks, “Well, we get that feeling too, but instead we’re up here in the middle of it all, pushing the snow around like crazy.”

The work can be quite overwhelming. While Finn and his team are only responsible for clearing the main campus—a private contractor is paid to clear Charles River, The Mods and Gossman—“we still can’t catch every snowflake as it falls to the ground,” he says.

“We are responsible for a large area in snow removal, and the fact that these people get it done is a testament to their dedication, skill, and hard work,” Finn says. “This goes way beyond anything that I personally do.”

Unfortunately, the Brandeis campus isn’t exactly plow-accessible either, and driving around campus, you can see why.

There are the narrow walkways between Ridgewood and Ziv Quads, by the Admissions buildings and the narrow sidewalk on the loop road between the Castle and East, all of which require the attention of two smaller plows. Then there are the countless steps in Charles River, in Massell Quad, in front of the Village, in front of East, by the Castle and leading to the gym that need to be hand shoveled. And don’t even mention East Hill, where two years ago a snowplow slipped during a storm and damaged the guardrail.

Thankfully, the $300,000 facilities sets aside annually for snow removal is budgeted with repairs in mind.

“There’s always repairs, something always needs to be fixed,” Finn says. “My biggest nightmare is having to change a tire on that loader, or having a machine go down during a storm. If a machine goes down and the snow’s still flying, there’s no estimation of how much that will delay us from going home.”

And delays do happen. There have been times in the past 10 years Finn has been at Brandeis when he and his crew have had to work at plowing for more than 24 straight hours—something that, thankfully, hasn’t happened yet this year.

“That’s why some people call this work blood money,” Finn says. “This is miserable work, because when you’re outside for that long, your clothes are soaked through and the longer you’re working the slower you go. But it’s a job, and like I tell the guys, that’s more than some people have these days.”

Finn and his crew do get paid overtime for their work but, he says, “no one likes it.”

Despite the trials and tribulations of his work, Finn says there’s a reason he keeps coming back every year to do it.

“Some people say there’s nothing as beautiful as a snow covered field, and that’s pretty, but you just can’t imagine the joy and satisfaction you get out of taking that field and making it into something people use—making it clean,” he says.

“Even though we all hate it to an extent, there’s a little kid in all of us that just loves being out there, man versus wild, fighting the storm.”