Even though Plant Operations and Skilled Trades Director Jerry Van Couwenberghe had been at UM-Dearborn for less than a decade, he had a presence that made you feel like he'd been here forever. Much of that owed to the vast expertise and experience he brought to the university when he joined the facilities team in 2014, says Facilities and Operations Executive Director Carol Glick. As she remembers it, the thing that stood out about Van Couwenberghe straight away was his absolute willingness to jump in the deep end. “He came in right in the middle of the Natural Sciences Building renovation at a time when it was under construction, and when the project had not yet had a plant operations review,” Glick recalls. “And from day one, he took all the specs, all of the prints, sat down with his team, and they headed right into the construction site to identify all those areas where design and reality were in conflict.” It’s the kind of thing that Glick says often falls to the sidelines on big complex projects (sometimes at great expense and inconvenience to facilities teams), and Jerry’s leadership helped make the building what it is today.
He played a similar role in the recent construction of the new Engineering Lab Building, though on that project, campus reaped the benefits of having him involved from day one. “Carol has this Swiss cheese analogy she uses for our department: Every one of us is like a slice with holes in our skillset, but if you stack us altogether, we’re a solid block,” says Emily Hamilton, the project manager for the ELB. “Jerry was definitely my backup cheese on the ELB. That was a very complicated building, and he and his team jumped on the opportunity to review the design because they were going to have to maintain it for the next 50 years. I know we didn’t get everything that he wanted, but we changed hundreds of things in that building because of his knowledge and input.”
When it came to his official role, Van Couwenberghe was a picture of dependability. But he could also surprise you, says Plant Operations Manager Scott Kiroff, who worked directly under Van Couwenberghe for the past several years. Kiroff cites the 2020 E-Challenge as a memorable example. Initially, Van Couwenberghe was skeptical of the DTE-sponsored project in which Michigan universities assembled teams of facilities staff, students and faculty to develop innovative energy efficiency strategies for their campuses. "I think he was thinking, 'We have guys that have 20 years on the job. How can we teach students to understand the systems in our buildings in a few months?'" Kiroff says. "But once he saw the students’ enthusiasm, they totally won him over. He saw how much they wanted to learn, and he loved teaching them the ins and outs of all our buildings. About halfway through, I remember he told me, 'you know, this E-Challenge thing is pretty cool.'"
That directness — and brevity — was classic Van Couwenberghe. His colleagues say he was a man of few words, but you typically knew where things stood with him. Outside of his life at the university, family was the center of his life, and he loved spending time with his wife, Christine, their three sons, and their six grandchildren. He was also a loyal Detroit sports fan — especially of its most hardluck franchise, the Detroit Lions, and earlier in his life, he played drums in a rock band. Kiroff says if you knew Van Couwenberghe at all, you know he loved his pool — so much so that it became his signature Zoom background during the pandemic. He changed the image at least a couple times a year to match the seasons.
Glick, Hamilton and Kiroff say they’ll miss his pragmatism, dependability, leadership, straightforwardness — and even, in some ways, the extra strong pots of office coffee he’d brew, which only he seemed to appreciate. “His passing definitely leaves a hole in our department that will not be easily filled,” Glick says.
Story by Lou Blouin