Campus drafts one man for high-flying assignments

15 NOVEMBER 00 | When work needs to be done in Berkeley's most lofty reaches, the campus calls Jim Phelan, San Francisco's only fulltime steeplejack.

Although not a campus employee, Phelan gets lots of work here, climbing to places regular employees dare not go.

"I've been climbing since I was little, and I'll be climbing when I'm 78," the third-generation steeplejack said. "My son will probably learn the trade too, just the way I did, watching my dad."

He's best known as Cal's Campanile caretaker, although he's worked on towers and flagpoles much higher than the 307-foot-tall campus landmark. In 1975, he removed the clock's the 17-foot-long minute hand to refurbish it, carefully lowering himself on a tether to eye level with both hands as they struck noon.

"I had to time my work so that I could take it off between minutes, because the hand moved three or four feet each minute and they didn't shut the clock off for the refurbishing," he said.

In another Campanile feat, the 48-year-old steeplejack helped to hoist some of the bells that completed Sather's Tower's 61-bell carillon in 1983. "The number of bells kept changing," he recalled, "because Stanford was trying to upstage Cal by adding more bells to its bell tower. They asked me to dismantle the Campanile assembly and install just a few more bells."

His most harrowing job was taking down the flagpole on top of Market Street's Ferry Building after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Enlisting the help of a large Chinook helicopter called in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Phelan watched as the helicopter's load, suspended from a cable, got caught on the building. It took several hours to pry the load free.

"Things didn't go too smoothly," Phelan explained.

But heights don't bother him "because it's really just you up there doing the work," he said. "I've been to the top of a 60-story flagpole, on the Seattle Unocal building, working on a flag that was 30 feet by 70 feet in area. As long as it's not too windy, it's OK. The way I look at it, every time you walk across the street it's dangerous."

Regardless of what people might guess, the views aren't the best part of the job; it's the architecture that really counts. Phelan's dream job is to work on the Chrysler Building in New York City. Or the Sears Tower in Chicago.

"I love art deco and I want to see it close up," he said. "The spire on the Chrysler Building is aluminum, which was a new material in architecture when the building was built in the 1920s. I'd really like to see that close up."


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