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Death of beloved campus night watchman brings outpouring of food and fond memories

James E. "Big Jimmy" Roberts Sr.
James E. "Big Jimmy" Roberts Sr.

To the thousands of MIT students who knew him, James E. Roberts Sr. was much more than the night watchman at East Campus and Senior House for the past 20 years. He was "Big Jimmy," a friend and surrogate father.

Tuesday evening, Jan. 25, hundreds of students came to Senior House to pay their respects to Roberts, who died Jan. 21.

"Everybody knew him. There will never be another like him," said Mary Kathryn Thompson (S.B. 2002), a graduate student who came to know Roberts through her many friends living in East Campus and Senior House. Thompson organized the Jan. 25 wake.

Known for his ever-present smile and generous nature, Roberts worked hard for the students in his building. "He knew it was important to be visible around the dorm and get to know all the students. A feeling for what is going on around the place doesn't come to you, you have to go seek it out," said Senior House graduate resident tutor, Andrew Brooks.

Roberts often provided pizza, ice cream, Italian ices, burritos and pot-pies for late night studiers. The food consumed during those sessions came to be affectionately known as "Jimmy food."

"Jimmy had a great handle on college student food," said Geoff Goodell (S.B. 2001). Though he used much of his own money to supply the food, Roberts also provided a unique recycling service. During the day, students would leave their empty soda cans out for him to collect. He used the return money from the cans to pay for part of the food he gave them.

One student favorite was "Jimmy chili," a special chili he brought from home in a massive pot. "Some people survived on 'Jimmy Chili,'" said Thompson, who arranged for the six pots of chili at Jimmy's wake. She and dozens of others spent the night before the wake baking and cooking. All told, there were 27 pans of lasagna, hundreds of cookies, and, of course, chili.

"It seemed to be a fitting tribute," said Media Lab graduate student Joshua Lifton who was a graduate resident tutor (GRT) at Senior House and, this week, created a web site dedicated to Roberts. "Whether you were working all night on a problem set, doing your laundry, or spray painting your latest art project, Jimmy never failed to brighten your day."

The wake immediately followed Roberts' funeral, which was held at Doherty Funeral Home outside Davis Square in Somerville. Hundreds of MIT students flooded in during the visiting hours at Doherty's, where they met Roberts' family. He is survived by his mother Emily Preble of Brockton; his children, James Jr. and Kim Roberts both of Arizona; two sisters, Joann Young-Haddad of Dorchester and Jean McKenzie of Fall River; six grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

Later, the family and Roberts' best friend, Timothy Moore, and Moore's wife also came to the Senior House wake, where they took a tour and spent the evening swapping stories about the man who had such a large impact on so many students.

"They seemed to really appreciate getting a feel for the atmosphere Jimmy worked in and contributed so much to," said Thompson. "They knew how important we were to Jimmy and vice versa, but seeing it expressed all at once was almost overwhelming."

Director of Housing Karen A. Nilsson said she was constantly impressed by Roberts' dedication to his work during a difficult shift from midnight to 8 a.m. "He always went that extra step," she said, recalling the times Roberts would take a day out of his personal vacation time to help the students in Senior House during their annual spring steer roast. "He just always gave more than 100 percent."

An online guestbook dedicated to Roberts has garnered dozens of comments since his death, many of which have come from out-of-state alumni. Coming back to the MIT campus always meant seeing Roberts for many alumni. "His memory was incredible," said Thompson. Once students became a member of Roberts' "family," they were never forgotten.

"Sometimes, it seemed that Jimmy managed to remember more about my life than I did," said Goodell.

"For many students at MIT, studying deep into the cold and dreary nights, often alone, Jimmy's keychain and big smile at the door were a welcome sight," said Aaron Chang (S.B. 1996). "He always brought a smile to my face even when circumstances made it seem impossible."

In 1991, Roberts was honored with a James N. Murphy Award, given annually to a member of the MIT community for their outstanding contributions to the MIT community. "Big Jimmy serves as protector, physician, counselor and parent to MIT students in their hours of greatest need," said the nominators. When Roberts stood to receive his award, he received a standing ovation.

"Jimmy was probably the best person I ever met at MIT," said Ariel Segall (S.B. 2004). "He'd keep track of the people who needed to be checked up on, and go out of his way to make sure he knew they were okay every night. He saved lives that way. Most night watchmen think their job is to guard students' bodies. Jimmy guarded our hearts, minds and souls, too."

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Roberts' memory to the MIT Scholarship Fund (Room E19-411, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2005 (download PDF).

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