Fresh out of high school with two potential summer jobs, Milton Kline was faced with a choice: pickles or paint? Taking a pass on the pickle factory position might have been the best decision he ever made.
A chief painter at the University of Mary Washington, Kline has been covering the campus in satins and semi-glosses for more than three decades, but UMW’s walls aren’t all that he brightens. He does the same for employee morale as president of the Staff Advisory Council and for young people’s futures as leader of the popular student-painting program. He spends evenings writing referral letters to help his charges land jobs, turns up at their ballgames and class presentations to show support, and trusts them to do their own thing to help build their confidence.
“I let students manage themselves,” Kline said. “In a student-run organization, they have ownership.”
By now, Kline has his UMW painting schedule in sync with the school year. Projects like stairwells and railings can be done any time, residence hall rooms have to wait until after graduation in May, and academic buildings can be painted only after summer session ends.
He’s constantly tracking a pinwheel of colors and brands – ivory, eggshell, and off-white; Duron, Douglas, and Sherwin-Williams – so he’ll know what to use when touch-ups are needed. Columns of paint cans rise on shelves near his no-frills desk in a dusty corner of Facilities Services. But his “real office” can be seen rolling down College Avenue – a steel-gray ’83 Dodge van that arrived at Mary Washington just a few years after he did.
Kline, who lives in King George County with wife Linda and son Erik, a senior in high school, did dabble briefly in another line of work. He grew up with parents who were educators, and, after earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from James Madison University, accepted a teaching position at a Northumberland County, Va., middle school. That lasted six weeks.
“The kids didn’t exactly respond the way they do on the video clips,” he said.
College students are a much better match for Kline. Every year he scours the flood of applications for painting-crew jobs, looking for motivated members who’ll take pride in their work and get along well.
“I want them to be like vegetable soup,” he said of his students, many of whom have gone on to jobs as lawyers and professors, and in other respected professions. “You’ve got lima beans, corn, tomatoes. If somebody throws a rotten tomato in there, nobody wants to eat it.”
With his vast institutional knowledge and campus-wide friendships, Kline thinks of himself as “the Google search engine for Mary Washington,” putting students in touch with those who can best provide counsel on the careers they’re considering. Kline’s own advice on choosing a profession? Besides steering clear of the pickles?
“Success in life is measured by how happy you are,” he said, “not by your salary or your job title.”
What do you love most about UMW? The opportunity to work with students – the same reason everybody’s here, the friends I’ve made, and the opportunity to work under the leadership of Rick Hurley.
What would you change about UMW? I’d like to see the University build its endowment so all employees and students can have more opportunities. I’d like alumni to realize their gifts aren’t charity; they’re investing in the value of their diplomas.
How would you describe yourself? Goal-oriented. I like people. I have high expectations. Lucky – I think I have the best job here. If I had my choice to do anything here, I’d want this job.
What motivates you? When students who are now alumni contact me and tell me that their lives have been affected by the experiences they gained here.
What inspires you? Recently, the drive the Staff Advisory Council did to get school supplies for children. It was the best example of a sense of community among different departments. It’s about the sense of community we have at the University, the school spirit.
What do you enjoy doing? Playing golf and going to JMU football and basketball games.
What are you afraid of? That when I’m retired, I won’t be as fulfilled as I am now.
What keeps you awake at night? Family issues, like everyone else. And wanting to be sure all the students working for me are being challenged and that they are reaching their full potential.