‘Go-to man’ in electric shop marks 50 years at University

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

At 8 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2008, electrician Renato (Ronnie) Carazzai walked into a room in the basement of Frick Laboratory and looked around. He had been in that room at the same hour on the morning of Nov. 17, 1958, to do some rewiring. It was the start of a 50-year career at Princeton.

Electrician Renato (Ronnie) Carazzai, who joined the University staff in 1958, was honored at the Service Recognition Luncheon for his 50 years of dedication to Princeton. Among Carazzai's responsibilities is installing the large illuminated sign that hangs on the roof of Nassau Hall to honor the graduating class at Commencement each year. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

For half a century, Carazzai has been the “high man” in Princeton’s electric shop — climbing heights to change lightbulbs, hang signs and wire tents — and he has no plans to give up the role anytime soon.

“I just enjoy being here,” said Carazzai, who is 73. “Every day it’s a different location, different people. That’s what makes longevity easy.”

“Ronnie loves the University — his heart is all University,” said electric shop foreman Ken Grayson, who has known Carazzai for 38 years. “He knows more ins and outs about the place than anybody else.”

Carazzai was honored for his dedication to the University at the annual Service Recognition Luncheon on March 26 (see “By the numbers” on page 3). He was the first staff member since 2002 to be recognized for 50 years of service.

Hanging signs for 50 classes

Carazzai was born in Princeton and grew up on Leigh Avenue near what was then Princeton Hospital. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1955, he began doing construction work, helping to build St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street. But he wanted to find a position at the University, where his father and uncle had been grounds-keepers. He was 22 when the electric shop, then located in the basement of McCosh Hall, offered him a job.

“When I started here we weren’t permitted to wear dungarees,” Carazzai said. “We had to wear khakis and a work shirt.”

For the 1959 Commencement, Carazzai built the illuminated “Class of 1959” sign and climbed onto the roof of Nassau Hall to hang it. He’s installed the sign at every Commencement since then, as well as changing the light bulbs hanging from the 82-foot-high ceilings in Jadwin Gymnasium and in the chapel. This spring he’ll be hanging his 50th class sign for the class of 2009.

“If it’s a high job I usually get it,” Carazzai said. “(Heights) don’t bother me.”

Carazzai’s years at Princeton and his uncanny memory for dates and other details make him the “go-to man” for the electric shop, said electrician Paul Canavera. “When we need to know something about the University, we go to Ronnie.”

Carazzai remembers which restroom in Pyne Hall lost power during Opening Exercises in 1969 (the one in the sixth entryway on the second floor) and when the electric shop relocated to the MacMillan Building (it was February 1962).

It’s an understatement to say he loves his work. He’s at the shop every weekday by 6 a.m. — always the first person there, sipping a cup of tea — and he takes vacation days reluctantly, usually after some coaxing from his wife of 44 years, Peggy.

“I just enjoy coming to work. I look forward to Monday mornings,” he said. “If I’m on vacation, by Thursday I’m looking forward to going back to work.”

Once, he recalled, he arrived at the airport on a red-eye flight at 7 a.m. and was at the shop by 9.

His favorite times of the year also are the busiest times for the shop — Commencement, Reunions and the start of the academic year. During those times, Carazzai is called on to set up special equipment for events. For the rest of the year he performs maintenance on lights, wiring and outlets, and makes repairs in dorm rooms and offices. His face is well known throughout campus.

“Everyone knows Ronnie, and everyone loves him,” said Breanna Olsen, a part-time administrative worker at the shop. “I learn a lot from Ronnie. He’s shown me how to do a lot of things.”

Over the years Carazzai has rubbed shoulders with many famous visitors to campus, among them U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, boxer Muhammad Ali, newscaster Tom Brokaw, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, and actress and Princeton alumna Brooke Shields. Of course, he also has been friendly with the four presidents that have been at the helm of Princeton during his tenure: Robert F. Goheen, William G. Bowen, Harold T. Shapiro and Shirley M. Tilghman.

When he isn’t working, Carazzai enjoys his annual trip to Jamaica with his wife, as well as traveling to Italy and Mexico. He teaches marksmanship to youngsters at the Citizens’ Rifle and Revolver Club in West Windsor, and he loves photography. He spends time with his four children, all of whom live nearby.

But despite all his hobbies, Carazzai is not interested in having more free time.

“My wife has finally stopped bugging me” about retiring, he said. “She’s finally accepted that I’m not going to.”

If Carazzai ever does decide to retire, his legacy will live on in light fixtures and outlets all over campus. Every time Carazzai does a repair or an installation, he inks the date and time of the job and his initials, “RRC.” “They’re everywhere,” Canavera said.