On January 22, 2021, longtime groundskeeper Jimmy Menard retired after 36 years with Williams. If you ever watched a soccer game, attended an alumni event or sat through commencement, chances are, Menard was working behind the scenes. Among other duties with athletics, he maintained natural grass and artificial turf playing fields, smoothed the ice at Lansing Chapman Rink, cleared snow during winter storms and prepared seating for special events. He saw multiple changes throughout his time at Williams, including nine presidents, and his fondness for the college might rival that of any Eph.
Even before he started working for Williams, Menard was a part of the college. Born and raised in the Berkshires, he was mentored by Williams students as a child in the Williamstown Boys’ Club, attended events on campus as a teenager and returned to seek employment after leaving the Marine Corps. But the recent loss of one of his friends to cancer and the threat of Covid—along with a rediscovered joy of dirt bikes—pushed his decision to retire and head south.
Chatting with Menard, one loses track of time; his stories could fill volumes. Here are some highlights of a recent conversation Williams Magazine had with him before he left the Berkshires for life’s next adventure.
An Early Connection
I grew up in the community, graduated from [Mount Greylock] high school, left to serve our country, traveled to 11 different countries of the world. [And I realized] how beautiful Williamstown truly is—the calmness, the security, the wholesomeness. I guess the running joke would be, if Williams wasn’t here, you’d have three major dairy farms.
We had students that were our counselors at the Boys’ Club [when I was growing up]. Those counselors were great. They took us to sporting events on campus, took us to Bronfman to see movies. That was part of my early introduction to Williams—the counselors that were so nice to us and did so much with us.
When I was like 14, 15, J. Geils did a concert in Chapin Hall. Myself and a few friends, we went over. If you look at the corners of Chapin Hall, you’ll see the way the blockwork is kind of stepped out. We used to scale up that building, go right across the sill to the double-hung windows, and the students would open the windows and let us go in.
Putting Down Roots
When I first got out of the Marine Corps, I was in California and Texas and then ventured my way back to Williamstown. I worked for the local moving company, Connors Brothers. I’d gotten married in August of ’85, and I realized it was important to try to get some benefits, starting out as a supposedly responsible adult. I used to come on campus quite a bit with Connors Brothers, moving pianos on Chapin stage for the music department. I knew quite a few people, and I just asked, “Are there any job openings?” every time I saw someone on campus. After part-time with dining services and bartending, I got my full-time job with B&G in custodial. [Buildings and Grounds eventually became Facilities.]
All the buildings had the same custodians. You got to be more personable with the students, and the people knew you. I got to helping out Gisella Blake and her husband, John, who took care of Williams and Sage Hall. I would help John a couple of hours a morning in his building. He was getting older, and you didn’t have an elevator back then, so I used to do all the physical stuff to help him out, as a favor and out of respect.
All Hands on Deck
You were pretty much married to the college two weeks out of your life, setting up prior to, during and the week after commencement into alumni weekend. I mean, alumni weekend, that’s why Williams is what it is. We didn’t have portable bleachers, the portable stage for commencement—everything was manually set up. Bleachers were taken from football, disassembled, brought to the commencement site, assembled, and then we used to have to disassemble them and bring them back. We’ve got a pretty sweet system down where everybody works together. You know, tradesmen, groundsmen, athletic grounds, custodial, even supervisors and foremen pitch in. We set up over 3,000 chairs during a normal commencement, plus we also do a setup indoors in case of rain.
In all my years working at Williams, they’ve only gone indoors one time. And I don’t think they even did the whole commencement indoors. I guess it’s been in the favor of the Purple Valley not to rain. But then the following week, we’ve had some terrible rain, sadly, for alumni weekend.
I got to know a lot of students immediately. Hockey players. When I eventually got to make the lateral move to athletics, I already knew a bunch of the athlete students, which was really a bonus.
Earlier in my career, [if] I saw a prospective student with their parents, I’d ask them, did they need any assistance? Did they need any information? And I tried to guide them and give them a quick briefing of what I knew of Williams. I could lead them right up to a coach’s office. The parents of the students are exceptional. I know so many families. Maybe a lot of it has to do with my personality.
Coach [Pete] Farwell ’73, the cross-country coach at Williams, was my substitute teacher in high school, my high school track coach and then I’ve worked for him. We’ve been friends since 1979.
One thing I’ve always respected: I’ve had some pretty good discussions with students and faculty of different fields of study, through times when I took an interest in different topics. I’ve had President [Frank] Oakley sit down and have a discussion about the Vietnam War with me. [Former president] Carl Vogt ’58 was something special to me, because he was a former Marine officer. At one of our employee appreciation luncheons, when I went up to get my gift, he says, “Semper fi, Marine.” Williams is Williams. It is special.
The Joy of “Bench-racing”
While I was home [at the beginning of the pandemic], my passion for dirt biking rekindled, and I started looking into this vintage stuff because, you know, I don’t want to go out there and ride with a 20-year-old kid doing that style of riding. They’re in the air more than they’re on the ground. So I basically built the same bike I had [in high school], but now that I’m financially capable of putting all the bolt-on, add-on, high-performance parts to the bike I truly wanted as a teenager that I couldn’t afford—now I have it. And I’ll be 59 years old going to race it and have fun with a vintage bike. [The other racers and I will be] sitting around talking like you and I right now—bench-racing, they call it. They probably have a beer after, sit there and relax, just laugh and joke about whatever. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
A Bittersweet Goodbye
I bought a brand-new van, and I’ve got my dirt bike and basically my toiletries, essential clothing. I’m going down [to North Carolina] to visit. I have two good friends I’m going to stay with for a while. If they let me stay a couple of months, great. If they get sick of me in two hours, then I’ve got to venture. There’s no set plan. There’s nothing etched in stone, because right now, I have nothing but time.
It kind of saddened me that I couldn’t give certain people hugs goodbye. You did an elbow bump or a fist bump. It would’ve been nice to give somebody a hug goodbye or a real handshake. But I’ll be back. I’ll be seeing everybody.
Interview by Regina Velázquez, assistant editor of Williams Magazine.
Watch a video of a drive-by farewell to Jimmy Menard.