Sunlight slowly starts to illuminate campus early Monday morning. Dew sprinkles the planters outside of the Student Union, and the light chill in the air fogs the big windows above the loading dock. Before campus wakes up from the long weekend slumber, Jim Kay is already at work prepping the Student Union for the week’s activities. Kay, the Facilities Maintenance supervisor and interim assistant director, does his job with a smile and a laugh, but never imagined he would be here. In the late 1980s, the talented actor and stage technician switched gears and moved his family to Statesville, N.C. from Florida to raise his children. Now he says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here. I think I made a difference. I like the people I work with,” said Kay, his clear blue eyes absorbing light as he looks out the terrace window on the Union’s third floor. “I’ve heard so many grumblings … when I first got here there were so many unhappy people working in the maintenance department. And I’m thinking, well OK, if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, find something that makes you happy … Life is not a dress rehearsal.”
Kay, 63, joined the UNC Charlotte family in 2005 as one of the original campus zone mechanics, and he has called the Student Union his primary work area since the building opened in 2009. Responsible for day-to-day building functions in the Student Union, he fixes anything that breaks and oversees the individual needs of the departments in the building, as well as dealing with purchasing and personnel issues that may arise within Facilities Management. Kay prides himself on juggling his different hats, and credits his background in the performing arts and his dedication to doing a job well to this success.
“I’m good at a lot of things,” he says. “You’ve heard that old saying ‘Jack of all trades’ … it also blends in with my philosophy that the more you know, the better employee you become. I’m adept at a lot of different things.”
Kay makes a lasting impression on his colleagues. Campus zone mechanics Greg Barnes, who has worked with Kay since 2005, describes him as a natural people person.
“He has a way of communicating with people of all classes of life,” said Barnes. “Likes to know what is going on in his bubble.”
Kay learned the skills that make him well-suited for his position as a zone mechanic backstage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Fla., working under two-time Academy Award winner José Ferrer. With Kay responsible for the entire technical program of the playhouse, the theatre gained national notoriety and became one of the nation’s leading theatres.
“I turned his whole technical program around to where we weren’t spending $100,000 a year, we were saving $200,000 and creating jobs and producing our own product,” Kay says. “And that was important. Important to me to be able to do that for him, and important for the theatre because we were funded by the taxpayers of Florida.”
Working backstage was a trial and error process for Kay, who originally wanted to work on stage, hoping to emulate Laurence Olivier, an English actor and director who is largely considered one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. Kay says fate led him on the path he was meant to travel, explaining how he decided to motorcycle cross country from Florida to Los Angeles after graduating high school.
“To the day, I do believe I spent a day and a half, almost two days, riding alongside John Lennon. True story,” Kay says with a smile as he stroked his bald head, a habit left over from his days with quintessential 1970s hair. In 1970, Kay left Florida and was pulled over in Little Rock, Ark., trapped in a rainstorm when a man riding a motorcycle with an English license plate pulled over. “The dude took his helmet off and I swear to God I did a double take. To me, the man was John Lennon.”
After this run-in, Kay spent two winters in Nebraska after his engine blew up in Kansas, performing odd jobs and accumulating skills that would help him later in life. When his father died in 1972, Kay returned to Florida to be with his family and went back to school at the University of West Florida. It was here that he met his wife, Jan, with whom he celebrated 35 years of marriage in August.
“As I got older and grew out of the precocious teen years or whatever, I learned there was more to acting than just being able to be the best in your class. I take rejection OK, but it got to the point in my life where that particular skill set needed to pay for itself and it wasn’t doing that,” says Kay as he strokes the gold band on his finger.
After leaving the stage and discovering his skills behind the sceens as a technician, he has worked in educational theatre, union theatre and professional theatre, serving as a member of Actor’s Equity and the Screen Actor’s Guild. Kay’s budding family became the motivation to leave Miami, Jan not wanting to raise their two daughters in south Florida, though he had not originally intended to leave the theatre behind entirely.
“Two days before I left Miami, my car was broken into and I lost 15 years of history in my work,” he said. “As an actor, you can list the roles you play and have somebody cast you according to type and experience. As a technician they want to see a visual history. And that was all gone. I had no visual history of any of the productions I had built, designed, co-designed or been a part of. All the record of that was gone, I had nothing to show. You talk a good talk, but where’s the walk? And the walk is in the visual history.”
Kay took this as a sign to change careers. In the end, he said, that field wasn’t conducive to raising his family, and his wife and daughters had become his first priority. He started planning how to support himself and his family in their later years. He is proud of his daughters, whom he says have both used their intelligence and determination to get far in life thus far. Jenessa, 29, and Chelsea, 24, both credit their successes to their father, however.
“My dad was and still is very outspoken and definitely not afraid to go against the grain,” said Chelsea, a student at Presidio of Monterey, the United States Defense Department’s foreign language institute. “I believe I inherited that part of him. They always called me ‘Little Jimbo,’ and yes, emulating my dad has gotten me in trouble sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to be like anyone else. I learned to welcome challenges from him and face them head on.”
“We had a saying in our family that ‘Kays don’t say can’t,’” said Jenessa, who just completed her M.S. in Marine Ecology at Louisiana State University. “His love for the ocean and respect for nature is one of the reasons I am a marine biologist now … We would get up and go fishing before the sun rose, just the two of us, and sometimes we would hardly speak, but I think the appreciation of those moments was always understood.”
While he has his eyes on retirement and plans for the future for he and Jan, Kay isn’t done doing what makes him happy yet. He still has time, he says, and he intends to make every moment count.
“There are very few opportunities that we get second chances to do the things that we love to do, or like to do, or even to have a second chance at just getting by,” Kay said with a smile. “I’ve been very happy with my life so far. Yeah, I’ve not done everything that I’ve wanted to, but then again, it ain’t over yet. I’m still riding. And I plan to keep on doing it.”