Ann Arbor, Mich., Dec. 5, 2016 -- Dorothy Smith-Fesl’s title may have been Building Manager during her nearly two decades at the School of Dentistry, but she wasn’t really managing a building as much as she was serving the needs and solving the problems of the hundreds of people who worked here during that time.
As she prepares to retire at the end of this month, the proof of her people skills comes with the steady stream of colleagues who have made their way to her office to offer thanks and best wishes. After 18 years of walking these halls, she knows the sprawling building well – the heating and air conditioning quirks, the maze of water and electrical connections, the highly specialized equipment in the dental clinics and research labs. But what stands out to those who have worked with her is the always-positive, always-helpful demeanor while she solved the myriad little problems that regularly get in the way of students learning, faculty teaching and researchers discovering.
Like, say, when their office is freezing, or stifling. Like when their high-tech equipment has lost electrical power. Like when their office chair breaks. Like when the movers are taking too long to move the new lab equipment onto the premises. Like when there is no distilled water for cleaning dental instruments.
Smith-Fesl views the countless problems she’s been called on to solve not as annoyances, but as opportunities to keep the building running smoothly. “Everyone – the faculty, staff and students – help me,” Smith-Fesl says. “They let me know when things go wrong. They’re like the eyes and ears for me, to let me know when things need some kind of assistance.”
Over the years she developed a favorite expression – “How can I help?” – that had a dual purpose. “Some people are apologetic and say, ‘Dorothy, I’m calling you all the time with problems.’ And sometimes they’re pretty aggravated by the time they call me. And by me just saying, ‘How can I help?’, it just diffuses that. I wouldn’t be working here if I didn’t like to be the person who could help them.”
It’s not as though she personally solved every problem that came up. A lot of her job, she said, is knowing where to quickly find the people who have the answers, expertise and equipment. Often that’s within the university’s building services, maintenance, OSHA and engineering units, or sometimes it requires private contractors.
Broken water pipes are probably the most difficult recurring problem over the years. When water is pouring into a clinic or lab or hallway it’s serious business that requires quick action and often extensive clean-up. Years later, it also can be amusing. Smith-Fesl laughs as she recalls the time a young man suddenly appeared at her door speaking incoherently. He was drenched from head to toe but Dorothy couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Then he realized that, in his panic, he was speaking his native German rather than English. He switched languages and explained, “I’m sorry. I’m in the lab over here around the corner. Water is coming from the ceiling.” She called maintenance, then the lab technician led her to the room. “Sure enough, a drain line let loose and it just poured on top of this poor guy,” she recalls. “Later we talked about how I didn’t know what he said to me. It was the look on his face that told me something serious had happened.”
Another memorable day mixed in with the thousands of routine days was Aug. 14, 2003, the day when the power grid for much of the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada failed. Smith-Fesl was in a stairwell when the power went out at about 4:10 p.m. In total darkness, she followed the handrail in the stairwell to get to the basement, where a custodian’s portable television was reporting the widespread outage. Aware that dental students were taking a national board test at the School of Dentistry that day, she gathered up as many flashlights as she could find and took them to the testing room. Within 45 minutes, the university was able to supply power to the building, with the caveat that the building should be cleared as much as possible to save power critical for the U-M hospital complex.
What many of her School of Dentistry colleagues may not know is that Smith-Fesl broke new ground for women in the electrical trades early in her career. In the late 1970s, while she was working on the assembly line of General Motors’ Buick plant in Flint, a supervisor suggested she apply for an apprenticeship in “the trades.” She had no idea what he was referring to, but after she learned more she decided to pursue certification as an electrician. At an introductory meeting on the first day of her apprenticeship, she was one of only two women in a room filled with 200 aspiring tradespeople. She earned an associate’s degree at Mott Community College and became the first female electrician at the Buick plant, where she worked for 10 years. In 1989, she took a job as an electrician at the U-M hospital, one of two female electricians at the time. “A woman working as an electrician was unusual and people were in shock when a woman walked in the door (on a service call). Back then, especially. It made you feel pretty good. Of course, they didn’t think you knew anything until you actually fixed the problem,” she said.
Early on during her work as an electrician, she said she realized she “didn’t want to be climbing in ceilings when I was 60.” So while she worked days at the hospital, she took night classes for six years at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield to earn her bachelor’s degree in engineering. In 1994, she became a project manager at the hospital, then transferred to the university’s central engineering shop for two years. She was named the School of Dentistry building manager in 1998.
Gary Sweier, administrative specialist in the Office of Patient Services, said he and colleagues noticed improvements to the building almost immediately after Smith-Fesl started. When problems were identified, she would follow through until they were solved, he said. “The lighting was better, the floors were cleaner, the doorknobs were polished, the walls were painted. What a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Through the years – I’ve been here 36 years – there have been a handful of select individuals who have stood out, who have made a difference, and she is one of them.”
Chief of Staff Erica Hanss said the school is a complex place to manage. “We support the missions of education, service, clinical care and research. Keeping everything running smoothly is a huge task involving many individuals and a thorough understanding of all the building’s systems. Dorothy has managed this complexity with skill and grace and she will be missed,” Hanss said.
Lou Ann Lenio, department administrator for Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry, considers Smith-Fesl a good friend after working with her for 18 years. “I am not aware of one person who has ever said anything negative about Dorothy,” Lenio said. “She comes to work each day with a smile on her face, greets everyone with kindness, and is a genuinely kind person to all – and is that way all the time.”
Lenio said Smith-Fesl has maintained her upbeat approach even though her job required a lot of unglamorous tasks, occasionally even critter control – catching bats, mice, cockroaches, ladybugs and anything that crawls. “If bathrooms are left dirty, Dorothy gets the call. If a lock is broken, Dorothy gets the call. If the building is too hot or too cold, Dorothy gets the call. If there is a bad smell, Dorothy gets the call,” Lenio said. “She has managed so many different crises over the years, she could write a book. And she did it all with graciousness, humor and a smile.”
Smith-Fesl said retirement means she and her husband, Ron, will be able to spend more time with their four children and grandchildren. They plan to travel and continue boating on the chain of lakes where they live, and she and her sister are going on a long-planned cruise in the Hawaiian Islands.
In the last several months, as Smith-Fesl has helped with the transition of the new building manager, Mike Folk, she’s come to one conclusion among her many memories about the School of Dentistry: “It’s a fantastic place to work.” In her earlier jobs, there were small groups of friends but not the widespread camaraderie she has found here. And her earlier jobs didn’t create a sense that a lot of people were depending on what she did. “But this job, you feel like everyone’s depending on you and it gives you a good feeling,” she said.
“The dental school, I feel as though it’s become a family. I think it does to most everyone who’s working in this building. I’ve worked in various places. Nothing compares to the feeling you have working here. Nothing.”
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.
Sharon Grayden, Communications Director, at (734) 615-2600, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lynn Monson, Writer, at (734) 615-1971.