Willie Keith, an Institution at UWCCC

If you’ve been around the labs in the Cancer Center anytime in the last 29 years, you’ve probably seen Willie Keith. From March of 1992 he’s worked for and then become the lead worker in the Glassware Washing and Sterilization Facility (glasswash). He’s seen plenty of people come and go during his time, becoming an institution at UWCCC. Willie is retiring May 4, 2021 and will be greatly missed by everyone here.

Willie Keith was interviewed by MaryAnne Naundorf. Additional information was added by Carl Johnson.

Tell us about your current position.

Currently, I cover 4 floors in WIMR I and 1 floor in WIMR II with the labs that each of those floors contain. I also cover some labs back in the hospital. The job is reprocessing all the glassware and utensils on those floors. Reprocessing includes washing and drying the glassware, autoclaving and sterilizing as needed.

How did you get into this job?

I spent 8.5 years (from 1984 to 1992) at Pop’s Club in Gordon Commons. A friend was a lead worker in glasswash prior to me joining the team. Someone retired, and I put in a transfer in March 1992 to come here and leave food service.

What is a typical workday, if you have one as such?

I arrive at the 5th floor of the hospital, grab my cart, head out to WIMR I, and start with whichever floor I feel like that day. I go to my glassroom on each floor and empty the equipment, pick up the dirty glassware and process it in dishwashers, wrap and autoclave, do the acid wash, and deliver glassware back to the labs. I repeat that with each floor in WIMR I, then go to WIMR II, and last I do the labs back in the hospital. It’s a lot of walking and waiting for the machines that can’t work so fast, so it’s a mixed back of staying motivated and waiting. It used to be a whole group of people, and now it’s a one man band.

Carl added that it’s approximately 40 labs and some curveballs. It’s like having a lot of bosses.

When did the job move from a team to one person?

It happened quite a while ago, I can’t remember how long it’s been.

Carl added that it was only Willie when he started in 2009.

How has UW changed since you’ve been here?

Back when I started, it was like the wild, wild west. I’ve seen the growth of new procedures and new, young doctors who bring lots of excitement. You can see how people change over time. You can see the excitement people bring when they join.

What is your favorite part of the job you’re doing?

I enjoy getting to see everyone in the labs. I’ve developed a relationship with workers, students, and managers. It was great seeing a variety of people every day. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go; Dr. Bailey was a medical fellow back when I started and he’s the Director now.

What do you wish people knew about your position?

I wish people knew how entailed it is. Some of the old school people realize what’s involved with the job: how many other labs are involved and everything I do. Many people don’t know how much goes on.

When Carl added that Willie has been reminding people to take tape and labels off their glassware, Willie remarked that he’s been saying that since March of ’92.

Where are you originally from?

I’m from the East Side of Madison. I was in Madison until I was 25, when I moved out to the Mazomanie area. I’ve been out in the Wisconsin River area ever since. It’s a very pretty drive, but people think I’m crazy because I work in Madison and keep moving further west.

What’s your favorite place in Wisconsin?

I like North of Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi valley area. It’s where I learned to swim. I did a lot of fishing in the Mississippi river. The bluffs are beautiful. Wyalusing State Park and Pikes Peak Park across the river in Iowa are beautiful. At Pikes Peak there’s a waterfall called Bridal Veil. You can walk behind it, which is cool.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?

I garden: I have a vegetable garden, and I help my wife with her flower garden. We’ve planted over 150 trees on our property. I like to fish as well.

Do you have any exciting plans for retirement?

We’re trying to get the house buttoned up so it’s less maintenance. I live in a log sided home and have to re-stain it every 3-4 years. I’m not getting younger, and I don’t bounce better. I’m trying to get that all figured out.

We only have 1 dog, so my wife and I can travel now. It’s on our bucket list to get to a warm ocean – either the west coast or the gulf coast. Every day is an adventure. I’m looking forward to time, freedom, and seeing what tomorrow brings.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This has really been a dream job; jumping out of food service to here was definitely a dream. There’s been conflict, with personality and policy changes. But it’s been like a family where everyone looks out for each other. UWCCC has been a marvelous place to work for.