For Facilities Worker, Journey to Graduation Was Anything But Average

Sam Eicke came to UT Dallas in 1987 as a groundskeeper. Today, he is the assistant director for physical plant services in facilities management, and will graduate Friday with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies. Watch him describe his journey and work at UT Dallas. If you don't see the video, watch it on Vimeo.

If anyone knows the UT Dallas campus like the back of his hand, it’s George “Sam” Eicke, assistant director for physical plant services in facilities management.

After working his way up for almost 30 years to supervise the University’s custodial, landscaping and events crews, Eicke knows where irrigation lines are buried, which trees — if any — need to be replaced, and how many recycle bins are needed for each campus building.

For all his extensive knowledge, Eicke has lacked one thing: a diploma from the University he knows so well.

That’s about to change. Eicke, 55, will graduate Friday with a hard-earned bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.

He said he’s more than happy to graduate with a modest 3.1 GPA, because “C's get degrees.”

“I am proud to be an average UTD student,” Eicke said. “I figure an average here is like a magna cum laude somewhere else.”

It’s been a seven-year academic journey for Eicke. In the last five, he’s taken classes year-round and has withdrawn from only two courses.

Eicke is as nontraditional a student as they come. The East Texas native started out at UT Dallas in 1987 as a groundskeeper, laying piping and hosing for sprinkler systems. He holds a license in irrigation and has become an ISA-certified arborist.

Jay Jascott and Sam Eicke

Landscape supervisor Jay Jascott (left) and Sam Eicke are both getting their bachelor's degrees in interdisciplinary studies this year.

He has been promoted six times, and along the way has picked up employee recognition awards for superior performance and outstanding customer service.

But not having a degree has nagged at him ever since the day his son, then 11, refused to do yard chores because he told his dad he planned to be a college graduate someday.

That “smart-mouth” comment launched Eicke’s dogged pursuit of an undergraduate degree. Jeremy Eicke has gone on to earn a master’s degree in counseling, and will be attending his own ceremony today at the University of North Texas, the same day as his dad’s commencement ceremony.

When Eicke transferred community college credits to UT Dallas in 2009, he found a supportive environment. Employee educational benefits helped with tuition. His boss let him attend classes during work hours and make up the time later. Most days, Eicke would come to his office at 4 a.m. to complete course assignments without distractions.

His co-workers rallied behind his efforts. Thea Junt, associate director of energy conservation and sustainability, was Eicke’s unofficial advisor and helped him map out which courses to take each semester. Junt, who has two master’s degrees from UT Dallas, signed on as Eicke’s instructor for independent study courses in sustainability.

“Everyone going through school needs an advocate. And Sam is awesome. You want to be on his team,” Junt said.

Eicke admitted he felt a bit out of his element when he saw how sharp his classmates were.

“I’m pretty friendly, but I talk funny,” Eicke said of his distinctive drawl. “It was a little intimidating. I felt a little old.”

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Still, he jumped right in. He joined study groups with students half his age and wasn’t afraid to ask questions in class. His candid humor quickly won the respect of his fellow students.

“My levity helped a lot,” Eicke said. “Kids are too focused on their grades. When you’re my age, being embarrassed isn’t that big a deal.”

Lynn Winstead, a senior lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, said Eicke added a diverse perspective in her classes and his nontraditional journey inspired those sitting around him.

“His work ethic is unparalleled, and he models the American Dream — that one can do anything with enough work and determination,” Winstead said. “He is a humble man, always quick to shake off praise and give it to someone else. Students and teachers alike have had their perspective enriched from interacting with him in the classroom setting.”

Rick Dempsey, associate vice president for facilities management, has been a source of encouragement for Eicke, whom he called a “model of perseverance.”

“This is a remarkable achievement by someone who never let go of his dream. Sam is just a very unique individual. He’s totally committed to making this a better place. And this is our product at UT Dallas — graduating students. That’s what we’re all about,” Dempsey said.

It’s certainly the ethos of the facilities management team: Landscape supervisor Jay Jascott is also getting a bachelor’s degree this year.

Eicke’s degree simply puts a stamp on what many of his colleagues already know, said Kelly Kinnard, director for physical plant services.

“I have learned so much more from Sam than he has from me,” Kinnard said. “His positive attitude and off-key singing is as infectious as his ability to take on any challenge that comes his way. UT Dallas is better for having Sam Eicke as a part of it.”

Eicke hopes that having a degree will let people know that despite his plain-spoken ways, he’s no longer just “a diamond in the rough.”

“I think my communication skills have greatly improved. I am polished to the nth degree,” Eicke said, with a smile.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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