It’s kind of hard to be thankful for Columbia at the end of November. Finals and papers loom, everyone suddenly remembers what school is like when it’s cold, and you’re just waiting for that “oh shiiiiit” moment the Monday you get back from break. We’re happy to be away this weekend, too, but we figured we’d remind you that there is plenty to be thankful for within the Gates. Meet Kevin McAllister, an electrician at Columbia nicknamed “Mr. Light” because he replaces most lightbulbs on campus. Kevin is also deeply committed to Morningside community service. Bwog is thankful for people like Mr. Light who make Morningside what it is. Sarah Camiscoli writes.
“They call me that because after all these years, I’ve come to know a lot of people. I’ve probably worked in every building off and on campus, so they kind of know me. When there’s a flood, that’s okay, but when the lights are out that’s something else. And when I come in, it feels like I just brighten up their whole day [chuckles]. I’m surprised that they still call me that.” While “Mr. Light” is a clever nickname for a man who has served as an electrician at Columbia and acted a source of vitality to his home community for over twenty years, Kevin McAllister tends to view himself less as a “light” and more as a conduit for community, kindness, and spirit. Otherwise, it would just be too easy.
After 27 years at Columbia, Kevin can say, “I’ve done a lot of things here.” And it has been more than just maintaining voltage. Kevin has served as a union representative, subcontracting and grievance committee member, chief shop steward, and even “with all the hard work and dedication,” union president of Local 241 Transit Workers Union. While his salaried and political work most definitely speak to his charged devotion, Kevin admits, “this is my job, this is where I make money, but my passion is in the work that I do in the community.” It is service that charges him.
“Specializing in saving lives,” Kevin has spent the last two decades organizing Uptown Inner City League, a not-for-profit baseball league that welcomes over 280 kids spanning the ages of twenty-four months to just under twenty years. In organizing groups of toddlers to teens, diverse in age, ethnicity, and gender into baseball teams for the summer, flag football teams for the fall, and “spring training” sessions after winter vacation, Kevin pledges, “We turn no kids away.” And this doesn’t pose too much of a problem since the league’s philosophy is that if a child can walk, he or she can join in. “You have to start that early,” explains Kevin, “Most people don’t want to deal with those kids, but from ages two to seven they can absorb so much.”
In addition to skill, much of that absorption lies within a meaningful understanding of community, one that resonates more to family than to team spirit. “Once you become a part of Uptown Inner City League, you become part of my family,” is how Team Manager McAllister puts it. “They come over and have dinner with my family and me and my wife take them to sporting events.” With the support of his wife (and childhood sweetheart), Stephanie, and the company of his two sons, Kevin keeps himself from burning out by making his success at the family level and his success in the community one and the same. “My success is the success of a lot of people,” is how he puts it. It’s the kind of achievement that manifests itself when a retired player visits his home 15 years later and says, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to have a place to go.”
While Kevin thrives on the success of individual community members, he is also propelled by his impact in the Morningside/Mahattanville community at large. Since 1985, crime has dropped drastically in the area, and Kevin believes that while it largely has to do with Columbia’s gentrification project, some of it can also be attributed to the work done by community leaders like himself. Similarly, Kevin does not see his success on the field as extricable from his connection to Columbia. While he most definitely recognizes the rarity of his devotion, he also cherishes that Columbia has bestowed on him a slew of resources, opportunities, and lovely individuals. Still, Kevin is confident in his work and the work of his collaborators alone. He explains, “Without Columbia Community Service [Office of Government Affairs], I think we would still be successful. Before we didn’t have much, so sometimes we used to sew the thumbs back onto the gloves.”
Still, Kevin does not forget the work of individuals that he has connected with through community impact, rewiring rooms, or just having casual conversation. One of the first Columbia volunteers, who eventually became the strength, conditioning, and track coach for the league, jumped on board when she came across the league while running on the track at Annunciation Field where they hold practice. Beyond singing her praises as a devoted volunteer and mentor, Kevin adds, “I call her my CU daughter.” Together, a group of engineering students in Mudd helped to set up a secure storage room for the kids’ equipment. The SEAS students also ended up engineering a batting cage for a project. Kevin says, “We are diligently working together… I have a way now in reaching and having a great relationships with the students here at Columbia University and when the project is over I still maintain a great relationship with [them].”
And what about faculty? From Don Slosher, VP for Facilities, to “Jimmy” at Ciao Bella Pizza, Kevin has quite a team. Support has taken the form of sodas, grills, or space for awards ceremonies.
At the end of the day though, it’s his faith and his wife Stephanie that keep it all together. Beyond Stephanie’s resolve to “put up with [him] for 20 years,” Kevin claims, “I knew what the plan was about and I just put it into motion.” For this reason, Kevin does not perceive the magnitude of his 14-hour days as entirely his own. Instead, he sees himself as a conduit for a greater force and a vehicle for opportunity. He says, “The moment that the Lord taps me on the head and says get up, I have a good day.” As for keeping the kiddies motivated, Kevin says it’s just about showing up, watching what you’re doing, and following through on promises. “If there is a community leader who says they are going to be there and do it, the kids will come.”
As for the Morningside Heights community at large, Kevin believes that the future lies in the “hands of advocates.” For those who may not see themselves in this way, he claims that it’s just that “you just don’t realize the impact you have on people and the differences you can make in their lives.”
And who’s to say? Maybe Kevin is right. Maybe, in someway, it is just that easy.