Terra Sigillata

Terrible news out of Duke University Medical Center this week with the death of 63-year-old master steamfitter, Rayford Cofer, in a steampipe explosion under one of the university’s largest research buildings. Not just any man, but one of the best at what his did:

Cofer, a Franklinton resident who began working with Duke’s Facilities Management Department in 2001, was known by his co-workers as one of the “go-to guys” who overcame obstacles on difficult assignments. He was twice honored with one of Duke’s top employee awards for meritorious service. (See, “A Generous Man and A Master Craftsman.”)

While the incident is still under investigation, we wish to draw attention to the unsung heroes like Mr Cofer whose efforts make all of our research possible.

If you’ve never been under your research building or up on the roof, you likely have no idea how complicated the infrastructure is that supports your work. Although I did a little pipefitting and conduit work as an undergrad for work-study, putting me in front of a huge HVAC system is like putting me in front of a 900 MHz NMR. The folks who keep your buildings running smoothly may not have advanced degrees but they can do things neither you or I can, and they do it with the same creativity, work ethic, and determination that we all try to instill in our sci/med trainees.

So if you have a chance today and see one of your blue-shirted colleagues busting their butts around your campus, offer a handshake and a thank-you for making your life a little easier. Regardless of whether you see their efforts or not, you would not be able to progress in your work without them.

And we all extend our deepest condolences to the family of Mr Rayford Cofer.


  1. #1 Joe
    May 16, 2008

    Thanks for that post.

  2. #2 acmegirl
    May 16, 2008

    You are so right.

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    May 16, 2008

    That’s fucking horrible!

    One of the many things I loved about my deceased Chair was that he treated everyone around him like human beings, not just those who were faculty or whatever. I have always had the same inclination, and appreciated this aspect of a NAS member very much.

  4. #4 kc
    May 16, 2008

    Excellent post! Working in the basement of our aging life sciences building has given me an appreciation for how complex keeping the place running is. While we complain a lot about how this place has aged–largely because everything in this place is asbestos which makes renovations difficult if not impossible–it’s amazing how well some things in this ~60 year old building are still running.

    The lab I work in is a young one and much of our equipment is stuff they dug up in the basement and found that it had been maintained so well it was still entirely functional. Just today a maintenance guy came in to replace a vacuum pump in our lab with an even older one (likely as old as this building, no one knows exactly), while he fixes something on our current one, which started running really, really loudly last week. And that’s just one of the many pieces of equipment we haven’t had to buy because the magicians in the basement keep all the old “inherited” equipment running so well.

  5. #5 AnnR
    May 16, 2008

    My Dad managed labs.

    A little thing like the power going out isn’t a problem, unless you have something in the refrigerator that needs a certain temperature!

    We used to stop by the “Department” every Sunday after church so he could swap the container on the liquid nitrogen machine.

    By the time he retired the EPA was in the mix. Depending on how you classify chemicals you’ve either got a school and a lab, or a toxic waste dump.

    The glassblower made a little heart-thing that sat on top of my wedding cake.

  6. #6 Art
    May 16, 2008

    As a tradesman, reading the site because I have an interest in science, I have learned that working a construction trade can be hazardous. Particularly ‘old work’, existing construction, where your trying to repair, maintain and/or upgrade existing infrastructure without having to shut everything down. Tying into existing lines can be like nailing Jello to a wall. While doing the job, if and/or when, the old stuff fails under the strain of being manipulated your right there and likely to be injured.

    Over the years I have lost several friends to these sorts of accidents and have seen a few more injured or maimed. My heart goes out to their families.

    Thank-you for remembering the people behind the scenes.

  7. #7 Jennifer
    May 17, 2008

    I did my graduate work in the basement of that very building (I hear my old labs are flooded now after the accident, and many of the instruments are “acting funny”). We saw a lot of the facilities guys because of our lab location. I didn’t know Mr. Cofer, but I have great respect for the behind-the-scenes work that all of those guys do. It’s a great tragedy.

  8. #8 drdrA
    May 19, 2008

    What a terrible loss!

    It is true- value every person that makes your lab run (and indeed the institution!)- from the most gifted postdoc, to the hardworking people who run the building.. to the administrative staff that keep finances in order… all the way to the person who mops the floor. Learn their names of those more invisible (simply because you aren’t their supervisor), say good morning to them every day and make sure they know you value their help…

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