Bill Kendall walks across the roof of the Noble Research Institute Plant Biology Building. Three stories up, his stride is as steady as it is on the ground. White material covers the roof's floor, but the Oklahoma sun still washes bright heat over anyone working here. Even when their task relates to refrigeration.
Though the rooftop presents a maze, Kendall knows exactly where he's going to a system that cools a growth room in the building below. Its job is to keep the room at 22 degrees Celsius, then drop to 20 degrees at night. It had been dropping 2 degrees too many, which prompted Kendall to set to work the day before. Now, gauges in hand, he's back to check on it.
Kendall, the Noble Research Institute's mechanical specialist for HVAC services, has been walking rooftops at the Noble Research Institute for more than four decades.
"I'm usually on top of a building or underneath a building working," he said. His sandy blond mustache turns up when he grins, which is often. Though quiet, Kendall's lighthearted humor shines on those who know him.
Kendall has been serving the Noble Research Institute with his maintenance skills for 42 years, longer than anyone else on campus. The longest-tenured employee in Noble Research Institute history is Wadell Altom, former Agricultural Division director, who retired in 2009 with 43 years of service.
On Jan. 24, 2016, Kendall will match that milestone, and he isn't planning to retire anytime soon. He has seen more than half of the Noble Research Institute's history play out before his eyes, and he has been involved in the majority of the organization's physical campus expansions.
Bill Kendall has served the Noble Research Institute's maintenance needs for 42 years.
Getting the job
In January 1973, Kendall went to work for the Noble Research Institute at the age of 19.
Although he's worked there ever since, the job is actually about the ninth he's had. He's worked for a shingle manufacturing plant, on a construction crew, with a veterinarian, at Kentucky Fried Chicken and in a Cadillac dealership's garage. When he was younger, he also helped out on his uncle's farm, mowed lawns and ran a paper route.
"So I've cooked chicken, hung sheetrock, worked on cows and made shingles," he chuckled. "It seems like I've been working someplace since I was old enough to walk. The Noble Research Institute has been a good place to work. I found my contentment here."
The first winter he worked at the shingle manufacturing plant, he and several other workers were laid off. He had heard about an opening in the Noble Research Institute's lawns department. He applied and got an interview, but he didn't get the job. A couple of weeks later, he got a call back. The Noble Research Institute had another position, this one in the maintenance department, and they thought he was the right fit.
In 1973, the maintenance department consisted of three people. Kendall joined as their assistant. He started his workday in the early afternoon and helped with whatever was needed. Then, in the evenings, when everyone else went home, he stayed and cleaned up to prepare for the next day.
Jack Jewell was Kendall's supervisor, and he was responsible for all of the air conditioning and refrigeration work. When Jewell went to work on a project, he asked Kendall to come along. Often, Kendall was just a second set of hands. He would carry the tools and supplies. But during those trips, Kendall's interest in HVAC systems sparked.
He learned on the job from Jewell, and he started taking a few night classes in Ardmore and around the state. He learned to work on refrigerators and heat pumps, air conditioners and ventilation systems.
"I've always liked working with tools," Kendall said. "And here I am, still working with tools."
By the 1980s, the Noble Research Institute was expanding. In 1988, the Plant Biology Division was formed. In 1997, the Forage Biotechnology Group, which was renamed the Forage Improvement Division in 2004, joined the Agricultural and Plant Biology divisions.
All of a sudden, dozens of growth chambers were showing up on campus for plant research, Kendall recalled. Someone had to learn how to maintain them, so Kendall traveled to Canada for a special 10-day class.
"I rely on Bill because he's been here when probably 90 percent of our campus was built," said Charlie Canny, director of facilities. "He has been such a part of its growth. He's part of the fabric of the Noble Research Institute. And he is consistently willing to do anything for anyone."
Bill Kendall checks on a refrigeration system that cools a growth room in the Plant Biology Building.
A reason to stay
Jeff Edwards, HVAC supervisor, can remember plenty of times Kendall helped him out.
The first was before Edwards was hired. The two had worked together when Edwards was a temporary employee, and Kendall helped hire him on full time a year and a half later, in 1995. "He really went to bat for me," Edwards said.
Once, Edwards had a water well pump go out. Lodged at 300 feet below ground, it wouldn't budge. Kendall not only helped Edwards hoist the pump up out of the ground; he stuck around to help work on it. "He doesn't wait to be asked if he can help you out," Edwards said. "And if you ask how you can repay the favor, he just says 'Oh, don't worry about it.'"
The two have worked side-by-side nearly every day since Edwards started working at the Noble Research Institute. Since their work involves climbing on roofs and in tight spaces, it's a good idea to have two people go out on the job, Kendall said. "Plus, working on these systems is like a puzzle," he added. "Sometimes you might see that the motor is running, but it's not cooling. It's good to have two minds working."
Their standard practice turned out to be lifesaving in July when Edwards collapsed while the two were working on a system at the Noble Research Institute Conference Center.
Kendall's eyes stare straight into the wall and his voice darkens as he talks about that day. Everything was going good, he said. He checked the gauges, and then he turned back to talk to Edwards when he realized something was wrong. Edwards slid down the wall, slumping over.
He remembers checking for a pulse and not finding one. He pulled Edwards out in the hall and started yelling for help then started chest compressions. "Call 911 Jeff's down!" he remembers calling to Gary Jackson, conference center manager, who had popped his head out of the kitchen down the hall in confusion. They continued the chest compressions along with Thurman Householder and Chad Boydston, two facilities co-workers, who arrived shortly before the paramedics.
Kendall remembers standing back as the paramedics took over. "It was pretty scary," he said. "Really, I don't feel like I did much. If I did anything, it was just being there to yell."
Two months later, Edwards walked back into the Plant Operations Building for his first day back at work. He doesn't remember the incident, but he does remember waking up in the intensive care unit. "The doctors said I was lucky to have Bill with me to start CPR," he said. If Kendall hadn't been with him, it likely would have been hours before someone found him.
"Bill has been solid like a rock," Edwards said. "He could have retired at any time, but I think he enjoys being part of this group."
Back up on the roof, Kendall pulls his glasses out of his shirt pocket to read the refrigeration pressure. With everything checked out, he seals the side back up with a screwdriver and walks the familiar path back to the elevator that will take him to ground level. On the way, he stops and checks on other systems to make sure they're still running without problem.
"I've always been proud of the fact that I work at an organization that helps farmers and ranchers," he had said earlier. "My job is to serve the needs of the organization, and I've enjoyed doing that for all these years."