It’s hard for anyone to picture Teresa Pittman without a smile. She carried it with her everywhere, so much so that her husband Mark Pittman, thinking about something to dedicate in his wife’s memory, said, “is there such a thing as an everybody smile and get along day?”
After 23 years working as a custodian in nearly every building at Carleton, Pittman, 56, died on February 9 at Abbott Hospital in Minneapolis of complications from COVID-19. She is the first member of the on-campus Carleton community to pass away from the disease.
Every workday since 1997, Pittman woke up shortly after 3 a.m. to drive from the hobby farm near Kilkenny where she lived with Mr. Pittman to be on campus, cleaning supplies in hand and hard rock in ears, by the time her work started at 5 a.m. She greeted everyone she met in those early mornings with friendly conversation and her signature smile.
“The first thing I heard every day before my morning classes was rock music echoing out from the hall,” said Aishee Mukherji ’21. As soon as Pittman saw her coming, Mukherji said, “she would turn down the music to talk. Every conversation was meaningful to her. She was busy, she didn’t have to stop and talk, but she always did.”
Perhaps because of that willingness to stop what she was doing to ask about the kids or the final exam or the football game, Pittman had a penchant for turning passing chats into relationships that endured over her two decades at Carleton. Mr. Pittman said, “There are students that she still recognizes at alumni weekend. They could have graduated 10 years ago and they can still pick her out of the bunch.”
Forming lasting friendships isn’t usually part of a Carleton custodian’s job. Pittman was known around campus for making an effort to get to know everyone around her. “She was special like that,” said Annette Nierobisz, Professor of Sociology. “Teresa was one of those people everybody liked.”
Competition for Pittman’s heart was stiff between her barn full of miniature donkeys and her seven grandchildren. The donkeys were a gift from Mr. Pittman one year and, he said, “she just fell in love with them. They were her kids after our kids left.” It was just as likely that Pittman would brag about her youngest grandson’s latest football game as it was that she’d proudly report on what the baby donkeys were up to that day.
Mukherji said that Pittman’s motherly presence was apparent in all her interactions, especially with students as she was working in the residence halls. “It’s easy to feel homesick in college, living in a dorm,” Mukherji said. “She would always ask how you are, even if she was on the phone with someone.”
Between the hours she spent cleaning the Recreation Center and the hours she spent working out in the building, Pittman will also endure in many people’s memories as a semi-permanent fixture in the Rec. Pittman’s remembrance page is filled with tributes from students, staff and faculty who left notes of gratitude for their ever-cheerful workout buddy. “She was the Rec Center,” Nierobisz said. Mikki Showers, Director of the Recreation Center, said in an email that plans are underway to install a plaque dedicated to Pittman in the Recreation Center.
If she couldn’t be in the Rec working on her own athletic prospects, Pittman, a true purple-and-gold-blooded Minnesotan, was watching her beloved Vikings play. A lifelong resident of Southern Minnesota, Pittman graduated from Faribault High School and met Mark, her second husband, at the 2000 Jesse James Days in Northfield. The Pittmans married in 2004, bringing her two children from a prior marriage and his three—including Dining Services staff member Carrie Akemann—together in their house in Kilkenny.
Mr. Pittman said that, true to her smiling, self-assured style, Pittman’s mantra through her final weeks was, “It is what it is. There’s nothing you’re going to do to change it.” Mr. Pittman was also sick with COVID-19 at the time, but has since recovered. The COVID-19 Core Team said in an school-wide email, “it was determined that she’d had no close contacts on campus, nor were connections traced to any other COVID-19 cases in the campus community preceding her illness.”
Pittman brought her particular love of life and care for those around her to Carleton through her last day at work on January 14. Nierobisz said that the image of Pittman walking through the sunny Recreation Center parking lot on a winter morning, laughing raucously with a colleague, will endure as a final memory of her. “I’m going to miss that positive energy,” she said. “Carleton can be an intense place and she lightened it up for us. She kept it real.”If you would like to make a contribution or reach out to Teresa’s family, her son Tyler has organized a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover medical and funeral costs. Notes of remembrance can be left at the Chaplain’s website or sent directly to Mark Pittman at the address provided. Otherwise, just smile and get along.