When John Collins got out of the Army in 1972, he had no plan for what was next. He did some landscaping and plumbing work, but he wasn’t sure where his life was headed.
That’s when Jim Sullivan pulled Collins aside. The pair worked together at a Wellesley plumbing company, and Sullivan was a mentor of sorts to Collins. On a Friday, Sullivan said, “Go see my brother, Ed, on Monday.” Ed was the director of Babson’s physical plant. (His son, Terry, is a long-time facilities employee at Babson today.)
Doing as he was told, Collins came by the College on Monday. Forty-three years later, he’s still here. “That was it,” says Collins.
Collins is a painter. Spend any time on campus, and you’re sure to run into him. Actually, before you spot him, you first might hear his paint-splattered boombox playing anything from The Beatles to Journey to Lady Gaga. Then you might notice his green and worn minivan, which used to belong to the Athletics Department and now is loaded with cans and tarps.
When you stumble upon Collins himself, he’ll be wearing his standard uniform of bandanna and beret, and he’ll be painting, always painting. Offices, hallways, student rooms, trucks, floors, benches, the hockey rink. You name it, the man paints it. “You stay busy. You never run out of work,” Collins says. “The brush takes me everywhere. I meet a lot of people.”
As he paints, Collins often strikes up conversations. He’ll ask students how they’re doing, maybe buy them a cup of coffee. To those with trouble on their minds, he’ll counsel: “Don’t worry about it. Life is short.” Collins calls himself “the ambassador” since he works all over campus and is always keeping an eye out. He once overheard a student saying she needed to retrieve papers at her home in nearby Natick, but she didn’t have a way to get there, so he lent her his car. On another occasion, a woman had a flat tire right outside campus and was waiting for a tow truck, so he gave her something to eat and kept her company until help arrived.
For Collins, the school year has a rhythm. In the fall, he paints snowplows and truck beds in preparation for the wintery weather to come. Then as the days turn cold, his painting moves inside until the spring, when he focuses on the athletic fields and prepares the campus for Commencement. He loves seeing the students he has gotten to know in their caps and gowns. He marvels at how they’ve matured. “You really see them grow,” he says. “That’s my favorite time of year.”
Looking back on his years on campus, Collins recalls the co-workers who have retired or passed away and the good times they shared. He has filled the paint shop in Sullivan Hall with so many Babson mementos that the room feels like a mini-museum, with softballs and pucks from old games, pictures of former College presidents, and even a portrait of Roger Babson. “That’s Roger in his younger days,” Collins says. He has personal keepsakes as well: the boots his son wore while serving in Afghanistan, an old painting cap his mom made out of dungarees, and pictures of baseball great Lou Gehrig, whom he adores. “He represents people who do their jobs,” Collins says. “No complaining.”
Also lying in the paint shop are some of the signs Collins leaves after finishing a job. Instead of simply saying “Wet Paint,” the messages are personalized. Often they read, “The best thing about Babson and life is being part of it.”—John Crawford