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Under Lock and Key

Locksmith Mike Pixley took three steps into the residence hall when he noticed something was wrong. The back door leading out to the patio was propped open and yet the security alarm was not going off.

“How did they do that?” Pixley wondered, and in an instant he found out. Using about 25 cents’ worth of spare parts, some students had figured out a way to bypass the alarm system. Could something sinister be afoot? No, the students simply wanted easy access to the outdoors on a hot and sunny September afternoon.

A locksmith’s hands are his most precious tool.

“I have to remove this,” Pixley said, disassembling the bypass device, “but I do have to admire their ingenuity. Sometimes the students create more work for us, but that’s okay. They’re the reason why we’re here.”

Pixley has been at Middlebury for 26 years, and he has staffed the lock department with Randy Benedict, a fellow locksmith, for all but two of those years. Together they have had a hand, literally, on every lock and every key and every door at Middlebury College.

At last count, Pixley and Benedict have issued 21,290 keys to operate the more than 5,000 locks on campus. They are also accountable for the hardware on every door on campus – a number that approaches 10,000 – whether it has a lock or not. Things like hinges, doorknobs, strike plates, and crash bars are their responsibility. Keyless push-button locks, like the new ones in Forest, Meeker, and Munford, and the older ones in Peterson Athletic Center, fall under their purview too.

You see there’s a whole lot more to being a locksmith than installing locks and making keys.

For example, if you have one of the 21,290 keys issued by the College, take a good look at it. See those numbers and letters stamped on the key? That’s a code the locksmiths have stamped on every key at Middlebury since the late 1980s, and just by looking at the key code they can tell you which lock it opens. The code also tells them who the key was issued to and when.

Likewise, look at the face of almost any lock on campus. It too has a code that the locksmiths have stamped on it. That way the lock department can make a duplicate key or replace the core or analyze a problem without having to make multiple trips to the site. But quick trips across campus are nothing new to the locksmiths. A student’s room door won’t lock. A professor can’t get into his office. A classroom door won’t open.

Pixley (left) and Randy Benedict install a door at McCullough.

“Call the locksmiths!” It’s a refrain heard nearly every day at Middlebury, and that’s when either Benedict or Pixley will zip across campus — on foot, in their John Deere “green machine,” or in their own vehicles — to solve the problem. They work so closely together, and have for so long, that they share a single two-way radio and the same call sign (#371) in Facilities Services.

The locksmiths start most mornings before 7:30 a.m. by meeting with their supervisor, Wayne Hall, in the Service Building. Next they head upstairs to the lock shop to go over the day’s work orders together (yellow for routine maintenance; white for “dorm damage”), split up the jobs, determine priorities, and get down to business.

Before they head out into the field, the locksmiths handle the day’s key requests: keys for contractors working on campus, keys for new employees, keys for departments that need them for student-workers, and a constant stream of lost keys.

“With the lost keys, we always look at the security level of the area. Like what doors did that key open? If it opened just one door, then we’ll probably issue a replacement key. But if that key opened multiple doors, then maybe we will have to re-key the whole area,” Pixley explained.

On the day when a writer from middmag.com tagged along with Pixley, he went to the KDR house to cut a cable, to McCardell Bicentennial Hall to fix a door closer on the seventh floor, to the Peterson Athletic Center to help the general services crew remove a door frame, to McCullough Student Center to re-hang two mahogany doors, and to Munford House to fix a bathroom door that wasn’t closing properly.

He also worked in the shop on a lock and handle combination from Bi Hall that wasn’t retracting properly. As Pixley started pulling the faulty mechanism apart, he said, “There’s a $15 part in there that wears out and it happens purely because of manufacturer’s error. But these locks go for $250 apiece and they’re out of warranty, so if I have to put an hour of labor and a new part in it, then it’s worth it.”

Mike Pixley fills a work order for new keys.

Door closers – the devices that shut a door after you walk through it – are taken for granted everywhere. But walk into any building at Middlebury or through almost any door, and what happens next? The door closes behind you. It happens over and over: dozens of times a day, hundreds of times a week, thousands of times a year. That’s why door closers frequently need adjustment or replacement.

“Did you see how fast that door was closing?” Pixley asked while replacing some worn-out hardware on a door. “Someone could have lost a finger in there.” So he adjusted the door closer too.

As the Army veteran hopped into his green machine and started back across campus, a gaggle of students momentarily blocked the way. Ever patient, Pixley turned and said, “Our job is to provide a safe, secure environment for them.” It was the perfect sound bite for a day with the locksmiths, and then he added, “We never have a dull day.”