For almost 20 years, Kenny Simila patrolled the hallways of Smith Memorial Student Union as its day porter. His tasks included sweeping, mopping and picking up trash in Smith as well as in the Box Office. He was responsible for opening up SMSU in the morning, and would get there as early as 7 a.m. to make sure the doors to the Disability Resource Center were propped open to make it easier for those in wheelchairs who had to access the center.
Simila passed away on Nov. 23, after battling many health issues for several years. He was 59 years old.
“It seemed like everyone knew Kenny. He was very friendly, talked to the students and interacted with them,” said Kori Wapelhurst, residential dining manager for Portland State, and Simila’s former supervisor.
“He was a kind soul, and I was sad when I got the news that he passed away. But he’s not suffering anymore, and he’s in a better place.”
Mark Russell, operations manager for SMSU agreed, and said that Simila loved the building; he knew the needs of each individual office, knew the rhythms of the building and would do whatever he could to help the students, staff and faculty members working there.
In October 2012, Simila suffered a ruptured gallbladder that sidelined him until February 2013. That didn’t diminish his professional appeal to those in charge of keeping SMSU up-and-running.
“He carried over through three or four different transitions with janitorial companies throughout his years here because he knew the ins and outs of the building, and did such a good job,” Russell said. “It’s hard to replace that kind of institutional knowledge. He was really the pulse of the building.”
Joe Dahmen, custodial supervisor for SMSU, said that during these transitions “the manager of the building would say something like, ‘You’re keeping Kenny, right?’ meaning ‘You better [keep Kenny!].’ Even though he had physical challenges, he always did a good job, he always kept busy.”
Simila had a reputation for going above and beyond.
“He was always doing what he could to help [the people in the building],” Wapelhurst said. “He was such a nice guy. He was so apologetic when he had to call in sick due to his health problems. I told him if he had to miss a day, it was fine, we’d figure it out. We tried to be as accommodating as possible, and held his position when he had to take time off.”
Even when he most likely could’ve retired on disability, Wapelhurst said Simila didn’t because he wanted to be working, and he was doing all he could to help his family.
Simila, Russell said, used to “hold court” every morning in the hallway on the ground floor of SMSU, next to the Starbucks coffee counter. It was here that staff and faculty knew they could find him if they needed something, and where he connected with the students and the rest of the building.
“I think he made it a point of being, that’s how he got to know people and what they needed,” he said. “He would talk while standing in line about the weekend. Students and staff would see him and say hi. He was the first person I saw every morning when I came to work. My morning was immediately altered if he wasn’t here.”
Simila had a knack for stories—one of the more memorable he shared with Russell was about a rat he encountered once outside of Smith.
“He said something like, ‘I don’t know who was angrier, me or [the rat], but I knew I wasn’t going to take him out with my broom!’” Russell said, chuckling.
“Kenny had a commitment to the people here. It was much more that he felt connected to the life in the building than the type of work he did,” he said. “He probably affected your life more than anyone else in that building.”