Dean of the Cage

Denton Ketels

Deep in the heart of the Bear Center, washing machines and dryers hum like a mechanical chorus in the equipment room. Known as the “cage,” a nickname left over from when steel meshwork secured all things athletic, it is where uniforms for 20 varsity sports are cleaned, prepped, and organized for their next public appearance. Travel bags for road trips are packed on staging tables. Ball gloves are relaced, racquets are restrung, and helmets are restored to battle readiness. Towels for every kind of athletic activity come in and go out by the hundreds.

At sunrise on a typical day, the cage room is just beginning to stir. An early visitor anticipating the musky aroma of a locker room would instead be delighted to get a whiff of something reminiscent of grandma’s kitchen. 

“The first thing I do is get the building opened, and then I make waffles for my student workers,” says Roger Bauman, whose official title is equipment room supervisor. “They get up early to come in here, and I figure that’s the least I can do. Early mornings aren’t really a student’s thing, you know.”

Like a big family 

Short-order cook is not in Bauman’s job description, but since switching from farming to the cage in 1985, he has become expert in everything from dry-fit fabrics to athletic equipment repair. In his own words, he’s “sort of a jack of all trades.” He helped design the custom storage cabinets, and his mechanical skills are frequently needed for repair jobs around various athletic facilities. When it’s time for Friday swimming, Saturday football, or Sunday tennis, he takes care of all the “fall-between-the-cracks-type” details that make game day seem automatic to the casual spectator. 

More than that, Bauman is a friend, colleague, and consultant to the athletics administration, staff, coaches, and students. Ask a Grinnell coach or athlete whom they first remember meeting on campus, and the answer is invariably “Roger, down in the cage.” 

“The coaches bring nominees for coaching or their prospective students through here,” Bauman says. “They tell them, ‘if you need something, just look up Roger.’ I try and make prospects feel comfortable. I want them to feel like this would be the place they’d like to go. I tell the parents, especially, that it’s just like a big family here. You’ll never find coaches that care about their kids any more than what these coaches care.”

Bauman makes sure that sense of community extends to things like helping students with the logistical aspects of their many fundraising and service activities. He says he never set out to be a counselor or mentor. Rather, he just wants to “help take some pressure off” students who are stressed over studies or adjusting to life away from home. 

So much good

Over the years, Bauman has hosted a number of international students at his house during winter break. Others have come by just to relax in a country setting or plant shrubs for a day. He still “dabbles” in farming, and students who’ve never seen a hayfield will show up to help with baling. One student interested in Peace Corps work even sought out agricultural experience on Bauman’s farm, assisting with … the anatomical modification of pigs. Every fall, Bauman invites the football team to his pond for a fishing derby and barbecue. 

“There were four boys from Afghanistan one year,” Bauman recalls. “They told me their stories about when Russia invaded Afghanistan. During a family gathering, a sniper shot and killed one of their family members in their home. At 17 and 18 they’d become freedom fighters, shooting bazookas and blowing up Russian tanks. That’s how fast they had to grow up.”

Bauman offered one of the students a place to stay during break when everyone else was going home to family and friends. “I told him I could never replace any of his family members, but if he wanted to stay with us over break that my home was his home, and he should always remember that,” Bauman says. “When that student graduated, he came up to me and told me he would never forget those words. It just did me so much good.

“It’s really amazing to see students come in here for the first time,” Bauman says. “You wonder if some of them are going to make it, but you turn around and next thing you know, they’re out there making world decisions.”

There are so many moving parts to his job, officially and unofficially, that Bauman jokes he’s “washed his hair twice some days because I couldn’t remember if I did it the first time.” Still, he says if he had known what he was getting into, he’d have done it 20 years sooner. 

“I’m going to be 70 this summer and my goal was to retire at 70, but now I’m not sure I want to,” Bauman says. “Being around the students honestly does make you feel younger. It’s a great job. I like the kids. You know, it’s just fun.”

Real Heroes of Pioneer Athletics … According to Roger

“Facilities Maintenance has a fantastic crew,” Bauman says. “People don't realize how much they do. If you look at our facilities, the actual playing fields, and compare it to facilities at other schools, you've got to be proud of what we have here, because I would say we're pretty much second to none.”

“I come in a little before 5:30 and the kids start coming at a quarter to six, but the custodians have been here since 4:00. Students from athletic teams come and say, ‘Roger, what can we do for you?’ I say, ‘You know what I'd like for you to do? Just make a simple thank you card for the custodians. They’d appreciate the fact that you notice their work.’ 

“That locker room can be a terrible mess when they get here. Nobody sees it, but they need to be recognized. Most Fridays, the custodians in this building and one or two others will come over for lunch and I'll go get pizza. Some of the custodians make dishes to bring and we eat together. It really is like a family operation.” 


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