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A cook picks up a paintbrush and becomes 'mayor' of Children's Hospital

Brian Pempsell's favorite work shirt says it all.

The white button-down shirt is splattered with the many colors he uses to paint the walls of Women & Children's Hospital.

"I have got every color on my shirt," said Pempsell, the hospital's head painter. "I always joke that I don't carry paint samples with me. I just say, 'Do you like this yellow? Do you like that green?'"

Pempsell, 59, started his career at the hospital 41 years ago when he was 18, working a part-time job during college in the mid-'70s, earning $2.80 an hour to wash pots and pans in the hospital basement and deliver trays of food to various floors.

A 28-year stint as a hospital cafeteria cook followed. One thing led to another and as Pempsell pondered doing something different, an opening for head painter came up 12 years ago.

Nowadays, Pempsell finds himself standing on ladders, transforming walls and patient rooms – giving everything a fresh look and touching up imperfections with the stroke of a brush.

Pempsell, 59, lives in the midst of Marilla's peaceful countryside and wakes at 3 a.m. five days a week to get ready for work. He drives the better part of an hour to be on the job by 5 a.m.

Pempsell and two co-painters will take the same part in keeping up the new look at John R. Oishei Children's Hospital when it opens in November on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

"There's always the behind-the-scenes people that keep the backbone of the place going," Pempsell said. "First impressions mean a lot."

His down-to-earth manner, quick wit and outgoing personality have earned him an internal badge of sorts as "the mayor" of Children's Hospital. Pempsell spoke recently to The Buffalo News as part of a series of interviews leading up to the opening of Oishei hospital this fall.

Q: What sorts of things do you do as hospital painter?

A: The nurses don't have time to be gentle with the beds. They pull them out, they pull them in, they're going here, they're going there with the beds. And the walls get banged, and get little holes in them and stuff like that. That's our main job in the beginning is just make sure when patients leave, make sure the rooms are presentable for the next patient to come in. If there's an issue in a room that needs touch-up, the nurses on that floor will call down and put a work order in and then I'll go up and take care of whatever the issue is.

Q: You must get pulled off a project to go touch up patient rooms with little advance notice. Is that often the case?

A: Absolutely. It has happened many times. The rooms turn over real fast, so we have very little time scheduled to get them fixed.

Q: What other projects do you tackle?

A: Our other big area is the lobby. It's your first thing you see when you come in and it's your first impression. You want the lobby to look really nice and neat and clean. You don't want to walk in and look at dirty floors and walls all scratched up … and think, "Oh, my God, what am I coming into?" It's very important that the lobby be looking really nice and presentable, and clean.

Q: How do you look on a given day at work?

A: I have got every color on my shirt. I always joke that I don't carry paint samples with me. I just say, "Do you like this yellow? Do you like that green? Look at my shirt. Pick out a color, any color you want."

We deal with Sherwin Williams and they supply us with white painters' pants and white, button-down collar shirts. I have a new John Oishei hat that I wear as my hat.

Q:  Do you work long days?

A: My hours were 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. Then my boss asked us if we'd consider working earlier hours. It was a little rough getting adjusted … because I live in the country and I leave my house at 4 a.m. to be here by 5. I had to get used to going to bed at 8 o'clock. Some nights I go to bed at 7 p.m. and it's still daylight. But I'm adjusting now. I work 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Q:  You're known as the unofficial mayor of this hospital. How did that come to be?

A: It started with my present boss, George. He was kind of new here in the building, and we were walking around looking at things that had to get painted. Every hallway we would go down, would be – "Hi Brian, Hi Brian, Hi Brian, Hi Brian." I'm like, "Hi, Hi, Hi." And he looks at me, and goes, "My God, you know everybody in the building. You're like the mayor, for God's sakes." …

… I had a lady come up to me. I was painting in the lobby last year and she asked me if I used to work in the cafeteria. She said she was here 15 years ago with her daughter who had to have surgery, and she said I waited on them in the cafeteria. She recognized my face from when she was here.

Q: What's your favorite painting job you have done here?

A: Maybe the patient rooms. When I am done with them, I like to look back and say, "OK, this looks nice. If I had a child, I would be happy to have them in this room because it looks nice and neat and clean." If it doesn't look good to me, I wouldn't want anyone else to be in them.

After I'm done painting, I'm in close contact with the housekeeping managers because I want them to come behind me, whether it's a floor that needs to be washed, cleaned and waxed – or a carpet that needs to be cleaned.

Q: What if you have to do a fast touch-up on a patient room that will be occupied later that day? How does that paint dry and the smell of paint go away, so it does not affect the next patient?

A: We have special paint that we get from Sherwin Williams that's made for hospitals and nursing homes. It has no VOCs. That's the chemical that goes in paint that makes it smell. We buy the paint that does not have VOCs, so there's no smell. This paint dries real fast. Like 15 minutes, and it's done. I can paint a whole wall, and it's done. You do not need to do a second coat if it's just a touch-up on the same color. It'll blend perfect. Sometimes, if I need to have it done faster, I have a little fan in my office that I will bring to dry it a little faster.

We don't have to really worry about smell. I paint the lobby and people will go by and say, "If I didn't see you painting, I wouldn't know this is getting painted."

Reporter Karen Robinson covers the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Follow her on twitter at @krobinsonBN or reach her by email at krobinson@buffnews.com.

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