Andy Burnett walks around the Urbana campus like he built the place.
That’s because Burnett, a 14-year UI employee and Facilities and Services millworker, has in fact had a hand in building quite a bit of it.
“It’s the coolest thing, just walking around campus and being able to point out some of the work we’ve done,” he said from the Physical Plant building on Oak Street. “We’ve done work on about every building.”
From the eye-catching bay windows at the Illini Union, to remodeling a lab from top to bottom, to the almost mindless perfection required to construct dozens of traffic barricades at a time – reminders of Burnett’s work are everywhere.
His “office” is a workstation in a corner of a sprawling woodworking room covered with wood-shaping machinery and a recurring layer of sawdust. It’s a place where plans are drawn, measurements are made and wood gives way to blade.
But on any given day, you’ll find Burnett and the other millworkers cast about at locations across campus, each focusing on any number of possible projects.
He said he thrives on the variety.
While he enjoyed helping to build the giant meeting table on the second floor of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, he still finds a certain Zen on the days he’s building no-frills barricades.
“In this job, you can’t let yourself become pigeonholed,” he said. “Sometimes you need that no-brainer kind of stuff, but you’ve still got to have pride in what you’re doing.”
His most-recent work can be found at the Chemical Life Sciences building, where he has designed and custom-built cabinetry, tables and other wood-accented pieces for an incoming professor’s laboratory.
“There’s always something that needs updating,” he said.
Burnett takes pride in his work, but he’s quick to point out he’s just part of a larger team – and of the UI’s long-standing tradition of maintaining its classic architecture.
There is autonomy in the specific work of each trade, but each trade also provides some level of input and manpower on most projects – making it at once an individual and a group effort. Burnett may measure, draw up and cut a project, but painters finish it and carpenters install it.
“We all kind of have specialties in our shop, but we’re quick to help each other if it’s a two-man job,” he said. “If you’re not exactly sure how to do something, you just ask somebody else and they’ll give you a different perspective.”
He said that ethic is shared by everyone he works with, which makes his job a daily learning experience as well.
“Certain guys build their drawers one way, other guys build them another way,” he said. “I don’t mind how they do it, the main thing is the end result – it has to work.”
Burnett’s path to the UI – or for that matter, a 9-to-5 career – wasn’t a straight one.
He’s a lifelong resident of the area, having attended Urbana High School and then enrolling in the UI’s art and design school. While at the UI, he was in the Marching Illini drum line.
He cut the college career short after following the call of the road and becoming a touring musician. His band recorded, toured the Midwest and even performed in Japan before calling it quits after 15 years. (Burnett still plays drums with two area blues bands: the Blues Deacons and the Keith Harden Band.)
“I quit school to become a rock star,” he said. “And then when it was over, I decided I needed a real job and started building houses with a buddy. Fine trim was my niche.”
He started at the UI as a building service worker, maintaining campus buildings on the night shift for three years. He said he was simply biding his time until a trade position opened.
“That’s where my background was and I trusted God that I would eventually get the job I wanted,” he said.
He said his father was a jack-of-all-trades who could repair just about anything. Some of that mechanical talent no doubt rubbed off.
“I’ve always been interested in working with my hands and as far as woodwork, it’s something I just naturally took to,” he said.
Burnett has settled down a lot from his “long-hair” days, though the long hair part was a less-conscious decision than the lifestyle. He’s been married for 18 years and lives on a farm with horses, chickens and four daughters – the youngest who is 10 and the oldest who is attending Southern Illinois University. He is an active member of New Horizon Church and credits God with his current satisfied station in life.
“My home life is great and I work with a great bunch of guys who are like brothers,” he said. “I’m blessed.”