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Work Program

A Tip of the Hat to Old Top: Norm Propst to Retire after 44 Years at Warren Wilson

by Tim Burkhardt, staff writer

Norm Propst, also known as "Old Top" in his office. Photo by Josh Reiss

Norm Propst, the Head Supervisor for the Carpentry Crew, is retiring after 44 years of serving Warren Wilson College. He has been a central figure and full time consultant in all the activities of Facilities Maintenance & Technical Services (FMTS) ever since the Fall semester of 1967. After almost half a century of making repairs and supervising projects, Propst will retire at the end of this semester.

Last week, Norm Propst, affectionately known by friends and FMTS employees as “Old Top,” took some time out of his work day to reflect on his past twoscore years with the school. His office in FMTS building was cluttered with filing cabinets and in-boxes full of work orders in various stages of completion.

There were bookshelves bulging with how-to manuals and power-tool catalogues. Nailed to the wall by his desk was a sign that read: “Around here I have a very responsible position… every time something goes wrong, I’M RESPONSIBLE!”

His desk was hidden beneath paperwork, invoices, and pictures of his grandchildren. And above the doorway, two clear, gallon-sized plastic bags full of water hung suspended by thumbtacks.

Old Top smiled when asked about the bags of water; he called them his fly bags. “The fly bags definitely keep the flies out, because flies are afraid of water. If you’re ever around a barn and it’s raining, you’ll notice they cluster in the corners, just a big wad of flies, because they want to stay dry. And so when they come in, when they are out in the hall and they look up and see the light glaring through the water, they’re afraid of it. They know its water, they’re afraid to get wet. They won’t fly under.”

Propst leaned back in his chair and began to recollect memories about his early years at Warren Wilson. He remembered being hired by coach Devries, who was the maintenance crew boss as well as the athletic director at the time.

“I was [Coach Devries] assistant,” said Propst, “we had a glass crew at the time; I took over the glass crew. I filled in for him one month [per] year with Carpentry. At that time we did a lot of woodworking stuff in the shop so I had the shop as well. Coach would rake the leaves and I would haul them away out to the saw mill. There were just a multitude of things; we picked up garbage for Coach… Whatever he needed.”

The Carpentry Crew boss also remembered the first major projects he undertook for the college. “We cleaned the pines out behind the chapel and built the Sunday school building. From the ground up, we did that.” He said.

Propst talked about building a house on Daisy Hill, and about renovating the second and third floors of Sunderland. “We put in cable heat, electric heat, new floors, new drywall, just everything.”

According to Old Top, a major difference between the Warren Wilson of today and the Warren Wilson of the past has to do with the size of the school. In the late sixties and early seventies there were fewer students to do the work, fewer supervisors, and less money in the budget for maintenance and repairs. If there was no work orders, carpentry crew got their work hours by hammering out bent nails and salvaging reusable wood. “We didn’t have a lot of money,” said Propst, “so we made things work.”

Working on campus for over four decades, Norm Propst has seen all types of wild Warren Wilson behavior. While he shied away from discussing some of the more salacious rumors about Wilson’s past, he did relate an amusing anecdote concerning problems between Anderson Brown Patrol, the campus security company at the time, an a student who was out to make a point.

Propst said, “We had Anderson Brown patrol, and one of the [students] went into at least six buildings while they were on duty and left notes saying he had gotten into the buildings undetected by Anderson Patrol because they were sitting in front of the AD building, asleep… He didn’t damage anything, he just got in. And at one point he let the air out of [security’s] tires while they were sitting in the car asleep, to prove that they were just not doing their job.”

As far as student behavior goes, Propst does not feel like it has changed much over the years. “I would say they are just as mischievous today as they were back then.” He said, “So I would say there is not a lot of differences in how students act now and then, we had to repair damages back then and we are still doing it now.” He went on to elaborate that for the most part students are respectful, but that some students go a bit wild when they are away from their parents for the first time.

Although Norm Propst is retiring at the end of the semester, he has not stopped thinking about the future of Warren Wilson and the work that gets done by FMTS. When asked about what projects he considers important for the school to carry out in his absence, he replied, “I’m concerned about some of the buildings… Especially some of our main buildings and a couple of the dorms need work. I’d like to see Stephenson redone, and Shepard redone, brought up to a nice, energy-saving type program.”

Before the interview drew to a close, more than six students, crew bosses, and office workers had ducked their heads under the fly bags in Norm Propst’s doorway to ask a question, seek advice, or just shoot the breeze. Seeing that his attentions were needed elsewhere, Old Top summed up his 44 years working for Warren Wilson with grace and eloquence.

“I enjoy exactly what I’m going to miss when I’m gone; the students. I think I’ve been a real positive person to a lot of students. I got a dollar in a letter from a guy who started his own business… he said that I was responsible for him being in business and he thought I should have the first dollar that he made, so I framed it.

“I’ve had some students get in business of their own. I think [my job is] more than just supervising a crew, I think our role is to be a positive role model. And you’re also teaching students how to do thing you love doing your own self. My tenure had come so quick, I wish I had 44 more years, but I don’t, so I think people know when it is time to move on out and do something else, leave it to the younger people. And there’s some good people that will carry on this program, maybe even sharpen it up.”

Congratulations Norm, on a career well worked. You have been a figurehead here, an inspiration to multiple generations of Wilson students. Here’s hoping your retirement is a grand event that gives you the freedom and rest you truly deserve.

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