'I didn’t want to lose him if I could find a way around it'
June 13, 2013
Two months short of five years.
That’s how long Sgt. Michael Farris, a utility information specialist within the Department of the Physical Plant at IU said his last tour of duty in the National Guard lasted. Farris had just returned from another deployment a year before in 2006 -- but, duty called again.
So, like many times before, Farris packed his bags and put his life on hold -- leaving his family, friends and job with the Physical Plant behind.
Manager of the utility information group Lee Walters said losing Farris to another tour of duty was a major hit to operations in their department. Based at the Central Heating and Cooling Plant, the utility information group is the central clearinghouse for information about utilities on IU campuses.
For Walters, Farris being deployed meant losing one of her best employees. She said he was one of the best at locating, metering, documenting and mapping utilities.
“Before the group was formed, he was kind of a one-man operation,” Walters said. “I really didn’t want to lose him if I could find a way around it. We agreed we would just kind of pick up the load.”
So the team divided his work between Walters and the other employees in the group. One year went by, then two, then three. Even when Farris had been gone for four years, Lee kept Farris’ position waiting for when he returned from his tour of duty. She kept his nameplate on his desk as a placeholder, eventually changing it to “active.” When people would come by and ask about him, Walters would just say the department was waiting for him to come back.
“I always felt like what he was doing was so much more important, so that’s why we worked with him,” Walters said.
It was that kind of compassion for Farris’ extenuating circumstances that led to Walters receiving multiple awards. Two months after Farris got back from that tour of duty in 2012, he nominated Walters for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve’s “Patriot Award.” The award recognizes employers who provide support for their employees in the service, which includes granting time off before and prior to employment.
In May, Walters was recognized again by the Indiana committee of ESGR with the “Above and Beyond Award.” Walters, along with more than 30 other local employers, were honored for going beyond the standards set by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which helps protect job rights and benefits for those in the armed forces.
Walters said making sure Farris had his job to come home to was a no-brainer for her.
“I never felt like we were put out because he was gone. I told him, you do what you have to do. I just wanted him to know I was behind him 100 percent,” Walters said.
Although Farris cannot get those years back that he spent away from everything that he knew and loved, he was reassured by being able to slide right back into his old routine with the utility information group.
“I was gone almost five years. Not only her, but the entire department covered for me while I was gone,” Farris said.
“She takes care of us. She watches out for every one of us in here, you know? She has our best interest at heart, and we all work together.”