Heroes in Every Season

A UF/IFAS employee shoveling mud at the Nature Coast Biological Station following Hurricane Idalia. Photo taken 08-31-23.

As I was reflecting upon the end of hurricane season, I thought about the many people and facilities UF/IFAS is entrusted with, how they can be unexpectedly in harm’s way, and what it takes to keep this operation moving.  

Someone has to do a safety inspection of each of the 1,400 UF/IFAS buildings every month—checking that the exit signs will stay illuminated in case of emergency so employees can find their way no matter what the conditions. 

Our facilities colleagues care for four million square feet of building space, and much of what they do gets little notice. But their work makes it possible for the things that do get noticed to happen.  

Their work is essential to making us the nation’s best higher-ed agriculture and natural resources operation. It requires first-rate, dedicated people. 

I was gratified to “rediscover” that we in fact have those people. A national search for a successor to Kevin Heinicka as senior director of facilities operations led us to Ronnie Cooper, who’s been with us for 18 years. 

Ronnie played a key role in the construction of the Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab and the Roland T. Stern Learning Center at Austin Cary Forest. And there have been plenty of hurricane heroics over the years—getting generators fired up in time to save research projects, drying out flooded spaces so they don’t get mold and mildew, safely restoring electricity, and restoring buildings to like-new condition. 

Our facilities staff innovate just as our faculty do. Modern facilities designs suggested and installed by staff members help save money, from shared fume hoods and autoclaves to renovations that create modern and flexible spaces. When Hurricane Idalia destroyed a storage building next to the Nature Coast Biological Station last August, Director Mike Allen and Ronnie floated the idea of procuring a mobile lab. It would be a trailer with a lab station, prep area, storage space and a bathroom. A mobile lab could go where the research requires and be moved out of harm’s way in the event of another storm. This is the kind of lemonade-from-lemons thinking that our facilities team is known for. 

When COVID kept many of us home, the facilities team was making sure buildings were safe to re-enter. 

He and his team have contributed in myriad less visible ways. They do repairs and make sure that all the stuff behind the walls, underground and above the ceiling is working.  

The team customarily juggles as many as 200 projects at a time across the state–critical repairs like roofs and HVAC systems. Again, not as noticeable as new buildings but essential to support research. 

Since 2018, we’ve added more than 150,000 square feet to UF/IFAS facilities. We’ve added zero net new facilities employees during the same period. The maintenance budget has stayed relatively stable, but as any homeowner knows, that means it actually has less buying power than five years ago.   

Our facilities team is a model for doing more with less. In the past six years, it has completed 71,000 tasks. Many, like clearing gutters, changing air filters or servicing backflow preventers, never get noticed. 

UF/IFAS is a special place in part because of our special places. Ronnie and his team (six administrative staff, eight maintenance leaders, five project management staff and more than 50 maintenance team members across the state) keep it that way, and I, for one, am grateful.  


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Posted: November 30, 2023

Category: UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Extension, WORK & LIFE

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