Big Jimmy

More Tributes and Info

Note: Big Jimmy's son and daughter want to express how much they've been touched by everyone's "kind words" about their father. Please go on down to the links and find out how to sign the guest book!

21 January 2005

A guardian angel passed on to the other side yesterday....

Contact me if you have copyright info on this

...He was not what most of society would call "cool" or "heroic." He weighed something like 400+ pounds. XXXL shirts would not fit him. He wore a plain brown uniform that, along with his dark brown hair, got drenched with sweat when he wheezed his way up and down the stairs.

But for many years, he was the guardian angel of the MIT undergraduate dormitories East Campus and Senior House. He was a night watchman who stopped to talk and gossip with the students. He'd remember your name and greet you and want to know how you were doing - really know, not just the usual hey-how-are-you-see-ya-bye, but how you really were, and hey-don't-worry, and you'll-be-ok. He enjoyed yakking with students, perhaps a bit too much and a bit too long - but in addition to dishing out the latest Institute dirt, he'd warn people about recent dormitory thefts and dangers. He liked "his" students so much, he'd try to buy hall logo clothing (which wouldn't fit). He was also genuinely concerned yet polite - he'd get a female student to check in on another female student who wasn't feeling well. He'd talk reassuringly with the upset student who had failed an exam. He would especially leap into action when rumors spread of a depressed student who was last seen muttering about suicide - and he was the only night watchman likely to hear about it, because he was the night watchman who stopped to talk and listen. Sure, sometimes he could seem too talkative, but we knew he was special, and that we were lucky to have someone like that on "our" side.

When the university tried to move him across campus to somewhere else, the protest was loud and insistent: Keep Big Jimmy at East Campus - and the university relented. When someone had the idea of nominating him for the James N. Murphy Award, we students rallied and got him one, and he was the only recipient that year to get a small standing ovation of cheering students. (And you could see the tears in his eyes!)

The MIT News Office reports on the nominators' words from 1991:

`James E. Roberts, night watchman at East Campus House: "Big Jimmy serves as protector, physician, counsellor and parent to MIT students in their hours of greatest need. He has saved lives directly through his cool and courageous actions and he may have saved lives indirectly through his kind words and deeds."'

Yes, I do suspect that he saved at least a few lives over the years, directly or indirectly - and in large part because he earned the students' trust in a way very few outsiders ever could.

Thinking of East Campus, it's hard to picture it without Big Jimmy's voice echoing down the hall, or his familiar form pausing by the lounge or leaning by an open doorway....

A couple years ago, back when I was unemployed, I happened to drift by my old dorm. It had been roughly 10 years since I'd graduated, 10 long, crazy years since I had lived in those buildings and hung out with fellow students and the night watchman. Well, the new students at my dorm didn't know me (naturally), but Big Jimmy did remember me, wanted to know (really know) what was going on, and then was eager to get me certain job contacts (that I didn't really want!). But that was just the sort of person he was - a bit too nosy, a bit too gossipy, but always willing to do anything for "his" students. True heart of gold, and utterly unforgettable.

I will miss our dormitory guardian angel.

Eri Izawa
rei (at) MIT (dot) edu.

Tributes, Links, and More Information

  • Big Jimmy Scholarship Fund Exceeds $100k Mark 4/10/09 Plus photo of the 2006 Steer Roast mural

  • MIT Gift Form: James ("Big Jimmy") E. Roberts, Sr. Memorial Scholarship Fund (3538700): 4/09: "Exceeds $100k Mark" 4/24/07: "$68,871.66 from 190 donors" "the first scholarship has been awarded for the current academic year" Wow!!!! 5/3/06: The Big Jimmy Fund is over $35k now. 3/8/05: "The Big Jimmy fund is at about 5k and has to hit 50k to be sustainable." Make sure your gift is to the Big Jimmy fund!

  • Official obituary: James E. "Big Jim" Roberts Sr. Of Brockton suddenly January 21, 2005. Devoted son of Emily Preble of Brockton. Father of James Jr. and Kim Roberts both of AZ. Brother of Joann Young-Haddad of Dorchester, Jean McKenzie of Fall River and the late Wayne Roberts. Lifelong friend of Timothy Moore of Somerville. Also survived by 6 grandchildren, many nieces and nephews. Relatives and friends invited to attend a Funeral Service in the George L. Doherty Funeral Home, 855 Broadway (Powder House Sq.) SOMERVILLE Tuesday evening at 6:00. Calling hours Tuesday 2-6. Interment private. Active employee of M.I.T. In lieu of flowers donations may be made in Jim's memory to the M.I.T. Scholarhsip Fund, Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge MA. Published in the Boston Globe on 1/24/2005.

  • Read and sign the James E. "Big Jim" Roberts Sr. Guestbook ... and remember the good times!

  • "Missing Big Jimmy" Boston Globe article by Brian McGrory, with mention of some good ol' Jimmy stories and a description of the memorial service.

  • In Memory of Big Jimmy Photo Collection maintained by Josh Lifton.

  • Remembering Big Jimmy: A group of MIT students has created a scholarship fund -- and a mural -- to honor long-time and much-loved security guard James E. Roberts Sr. Article at Technology Review, 7/11/06. Mural picture is here.

  • MIT Big Jimmy Spotlight 1/25/05

  • The MIT News Office report on the nominators' words from 1991.

  • The essay at the top of this page was also printed in HeroicStories.

    Captured from email:

  • Kim is Big Jimmy's daughter. When I noted that Big Jimmy had once cared for my pet cockatiel and taught him to wolf whistle, she wrote: "well.. at least he didnt teach the bird revalee at 4 am lol... he taught our bird that and every morning at 4 am... the bird would sound off.. :)" (He also "had a knack for fish" - I remember his stories of transporting his pet fish in garbage cans during a move!)

    She also writes: "if you guys were wondering about how my dad got the meat the way he did.... he used to work for a meat packing plant on mass ave in dorchester. he made lots of friends there. he knew quite the few who had questionable backgrounds."

  • Josh Lifton at Senior House wrote to tell me that what I wrote was "true to the last day." He added: "Senior House will miss him -- it's definitely a better place because of him."

  • Christian Baekkelund: `In the midst of a place with the word Institute proudly displayed high and low, Big Jimmy actually was truly an "institution'" Big Jimmy was more than just a man, more than a Nightwatchman, he was the guy with always a smile on his face. He was the guy that was always asking every student how they were doing and actually cared. He walked those halls while we worked, while we slept. He fed us and helped us. I could never begin to imagine just how many residents of East Campus and Senior Haus he made smile over the years. Tens of times a night, night after night, year after year, as students came and went. MIT can be a difficult place and will be for every student at one time or another. He was the kind of guy that even just seeing him coming down the hall with that grin on his face -- and anyone who's met him knows the grin I'm talking about...that grin -- made you smile and feel a little bit better. Even in academic or personal agony behind a closed door, many a student's mood lifted just a little, at merely hearing Jimmy go by their door. MIT tries admirably hard to be supportive: there's well-trained counsellors, deans, psychologists, and psychiatrists all paid to try to help a student deal with their trials and tribulations. And yet, it was the unlikeliest of employees, one whose job description did not have any similar requirements, who with a couple friendly (and funny!) words was able to help probably more than any other person, for many students over the years.

    `Currently, the news of his passing still seems almost unfathomable, because he was truly an institution that many can not even picture not being there when they think back upon their time in EC and Senior Haus. Even now, I can neither, nor ever will, be able to think back upon him and not smile, at least just a bit...'

  • Martin Stiaszny: `Big Jimmy was THE bomb. ....if the CP's ever wanted to come up to the hall after our pyrotechnics, Jimmy would always manage to take an extra 30 seconds to "find his keys". There will never be another like him.'

  • Amittai E Axelrod: `For those of you who weren't here, when big jimmy was night watchman here (and maybe once while he was at SH, I don't remember exactly) he would sometimes bring "jimmy food". Usually something like frozen pot or shepherd's pies or a big pot of chili. hmm, "frozen pot".

    `perhaps some of you have seen old crusties putting their empty soda cans on the wooden molding in the hallway. i know i still do, out of habit. stupid crust, forgetting where the recycling bin is...

    `back when big jimmy was the nightwatch, he'd walk around the dorm, every night, with a giant garbage bag, collecting empty refundable cans off the moldings on most of the halls. you could tell big jimmy was coming onto the hall within 2 minutes because you could hear the bag of cans clanking in the stairwell. once he was on the hall, it was hard to miss him, but the sound of the cans was the early-warning system for people who needed to tool [study] and couldn't afford to sit around and shoot the shit with big jimmy for 20 minutes.

    `when big jimmy collected enough jimmy-cans, he'd buy roughly his body-weight in frozen food, load up his pickup truck, and distribute it to the halls that left their cans out for him. the jimmy-food that i remember most often was the ultracheap frozen pizza in a garish orange box. horrible for you, and so fake that the cheese sometimes didn't melt well, but tasting damn near amazing at 3am.

    `...he was a good man, and i miss him.

    `PS "hey listen, i gotta go"
    [15 minutes later]
    "mm hmm, MM HMM, haha ha-- know what i mean?"'

  • Rachel De Lucas: `a couple of times he even brought me a _whole_ porterhouse (he had some crazy mafia 'meat connections' of some sort. or at least that was his story...). i got to cut it into steaks and grill for whoever was around. damn that guy was great.'
    © 2005 Eri Izawa. Image copyright unknown, but I think I originally remember seeing it at East Campus long ago...?