Dave Jenks | Abenaki | Dartmouth Roofer | 1993-2021

It took me a second to think of which side he meant when Dave Jenks called and asked me to meet him on the West side of Baker Tower. We both arrived early, on the side that faces Frat Row, or the Thayer building, or the river. Dave wanted to check the roof of the library. It rained all weekend, but then quickly became dry and hot – weather which, apparently, produces an excess of pollen. He took me up a set of stairs in the library, up an elevator in the stacks, up some more stairs, and then some more winding stairs through the clock tower, and up one more to get out on the roof. Baker is his favorite roof on campus – said he likes to go up there and see what all is going on. The springtime, before the leaves grow back on the trees, but after the snow all melts from the ground, is the best time to go take a look around. This year, there’s a new house up on the hill to the North, on the other side of the Connecticut. How do they get all the way up there? He wonders.

Back on the ground, I bought us drinks. Tea for me, cold brew for him. The coffee shop on main street stuck a brigadeiro on the end of his straw. He inspected the chocolate. He asked me what it was. It’s a Brazilian dessert, I explained. He didn’t want to know that much, just whether or not it was edible.

“I don’t get out much, you see,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Dave is a broad man. He’s got wild grey hair and grey beard to match, but not too long from now will his wife tell him it’s time, she’s tired of it, and she’ll cut it all off. She manages him well. He wears a blue work jumper, his first name embroidered on his right breast. He scoffs at some of the houses in Hanover; multi-million dollar homes, shiny and modern with broad flat roofs. Mother nature’s touchy, Dave says. Those roofs won’t withstand the weather here for long.

Dave does the roofs at Dartmouth. When everyone on campus is looking down, he’s looking up.

“See that side roof right there?” He points up at a building across the street. “That’s slate.” Slate roofs are tricky. They could cut his hand like glass if he isn’t careful. “I’m always looking up at the roofs because there could be a piece of slate that could come out there. I’m always looking up to see what the roofs look like because there could be work.”

There’s always work to be done on the roofs. There are two hundred buildings at Dartmouth with two hundred roofs, and each of those roofs have got a history. The roof of the Hopkins Arts Center, for example, needs a lot of management. It’s got a chemical roof, kind of like a soft, sprayable cement. The birds love to peck at it, Dave patches it back up. It should be resprayed every eight to ten years; Dave’s been here for twenty-eight. Dartmouth’s engineers, they come and they go, they’ve got different projects going at once, they would rather put the money somewhere other than the roofs. They don’t remember when the roofs need replacing, but Dave reminds them. When they renovated North Hall, the inside turned out to be such a mess, they called Dave up and asked if the roof repairs could wait a bit longer. Really, they should have replaced the roofs years ago — when Dave climbed up there to check it out, stuck his hand under the solar panels and found the shingles there degrading. The roof is the first thing that needs fixing, Dave told them.

Not everyone on campus knows who Dave Jenks is, but boy, if there’s a few days of rain, they’ll find out who Dave Jenks is. “Water always finds a way in,” he said. And he’s the only guy to call.

There used to be four roofers, and then there were two, until finally, it was just Dave, and twenty plus years of experience, and two hundred roofs. Now, they’re training in a new guy, in preparation for Dave’s retirement. The new guy’s just in it for the money, Dave thinks. He’s not here for the history or for the satisfaction of a day’s work.

“I grew up getting pleasure out of working hard,” Dave said. Dave grew up on a farm in Lyme, New Hampshire, with four brothers and two sisters. Dave could have been a farmer his whole life until he realized the farming business in America wasn’t going to take him nowhere – all work, no reward. So he went into the trades. The roofing business was different when he first started – less repairing, more building. “We would rip [the roofs] off and put ‘em back on and they’d be brand new, so you had great satisfaction of a day's work.”

Dave never attended Dartmouth, but a while back, Theta Delta Chi fraternity made him an honorary member of the brotherhood. Dave hangs out with the boys and has long time friends from the house. He can’t believe that some of his friends now have kids who attend Dartmouth, and some of them even join TDX. Some of the big weekends on campus — homecoming, reunions, parent weekends — alumni come back to visit, they shout Dave’s name around town if they see him. They leap out of their cars, dash across streets, push through crowds to say hello, how’re you, gosh how long has it been? Everything at Dartmouth changes so quickly. Four years go by and another four years go by. Buildings get torn down and others are constructed. Students come and go, policy’s change, commencement gets moved from The Green to the stadium, and the alumni are so grateful to see Dave’s familiar face on campus, after all these years.

“I love my job. That’s why I’m still here,” Dave said. “They have a good benefit plan here. They have a really good retirement. Which is huge. I was never raised to save money, you know the old saying goes, you might as well spend it because you can’t take it with ya’. I was never raised to put money in the bank. So Dartmouth has helped me do that, which is huge.”

Dave doesn’t know if he can handle another winter up on the roofs – his hands don’t take to the cold like they used to. And he’s just had some radiation done for a little spot of cancer – Melanoma. He got off the phone with his brother the other day who said, ‘Dave. There’s no such thing as a little spot of cancer. Cancer is cancer.’

In August 2021, Dave retired. He doesn’t know much about what people get up to during retirement, but he’s going to spend some more time at home with his sweetie pie. When he refers to his home, he points up. It’s 1600 feet in elevation, and he likes that. He’s always going “up” to his house. He’s remodeled it three times now. He made sure he’s got hallways that are wide enough for him and his wife to someday zoom around in their future wheelchairs. He’s got a barn that used to house his pigs, his rabbits, and his chickens, but now it’s where he keeps his welding gear. He’s got apple trees in his front yard, they blossomed right on time this past spring. But he was worried, with the cold that swept through The Upper Valley at the start of May, his trees might not fruit come September. He likes them to fruit, because the deer will come to his yard to munch. He can shoot them from his porch — he likes not having to leave his house to hunt.

“I like life. I want to travel around. But my roots are here,” Dave said. He’s been to Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota. He’s been all over the place but not for long. He’s seen a lot of things that he’s always meant to see again. But he doesn't like anyplace as much as home. “I’m not afraid of dying. But boy do what you want to do because you’re a long time dead. I love the life I’ve lived and people who are not here no more — they’ve gone over to wherever they've gone. But I know it’s gotta be awful good living 'cause they never come back.”