For 40 years, twice as long as a large portion of the student body has been alive, Sgt. Jim Lawless of Vassar Security has worked to keep campus safe not only for current students, but also for the College’s feline inhabitants, the stray cats.
Indeed, he has donated a significant amount of his own time and money to build and maintain the Cat Shacks scattered around campus to protect the stray cats and other animals that roam Vassar’s environs.
Mary Griffith ’75, who has worked with Lawless for years on the Cat Shacks, said, “Jim is one of the kindest people I know, and has always gone the distance to help any animal.”
Lawless began his career with Vassar Security in 1969. At the time, Security was run out of a small office next to Main Gate and, according to Lawless, was a much smaller organization with only a director and a mere handful of officers.
Before coming to Vassar, Lawless served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. He said he worked closely with the Navy’s elite Special Forces units, the Navy SEALs, on their missions. It was on one of these expeditions when Lawless’ gunboat was hit by rockets fired by the Vietcong and heavily damaged. “I’m very lucky,” Lawless said about the incident, as the force from the blast caused serious injury to his legs and knees, in addition to permanently damaging his hearing.
After the attack, he and his comrades managed to make it off their crippled ship; but, while Lawless was recovering from injuries at a nearby base, the Vietcong struck again with another missile attack. Injured as he was and unable to walk, Lawless had to rely on his comrades to clear away the rubble the enemy rockets had caused and carry him out of their barracks to safety.
“People say to me, ‘Boy, you’re lucky. You have Purple Hearts.’ But I say to them, ‘I don’t need those,’” Lawless said with a chuckle.
A Purple Heart is the United States Military’s award to soldiers who have been wounded in the line of duty. Lawless has two. He was also awarded a Bronze Star, which is one of the highest honors the military can bestow upon someone; it is only awarded to soldiers who have acted with particular valor and heroism on the battlefield.
Lawless’ hearing never fully recovered after his service.
“I’ve lost all upper tones,” he said. “You need to talk to me in a quiet area and yell at me. I tell people that several times and they still don’t want to yell at me. I can’t hear 80 percent of a [television], would you believe that?”
While not completely deaf, he does have trouble following speech when in a crowded or noisy area. For this reason, he asked to meet with me down at Sunset Lake, mainly for the quiet but also for the spectacular spring view.
To overcome his hearing loss, Lawless has become proficient at lip-reading and makes it a habit to both listen to and read the lips of whomever he is conversing with.
At Vassar, Lawless has found a quieter career helping and protecting the students and animals of Vassar’s community.
“I’m here to defend people and make sure they have a safe environment. I’m here for the safety of the College community. Period. That’s the bottom line,” he stated.
He continued, “That’s why I came here. Not everyone cares, but I do. We [Security] have a lot of guys out here that do care.”
Even though he is retired, Lawless will often take extra shifts for Security when another guard needs some time off.
Lawless summed up the reason why he has stayed with the College for so many years, pointing to the students who make up the community. He said,“The students make me feel young.”
In addition to his work on Security and for the cats, Lawless also helped found the student-led Campus Patrol. The idea behind Campus Patrol was to provide students with another layer of safety and protection.
“They were extra sets of eyes and ears for Security, which really helped, everyone will agree. We don’t want students to get hurt,” he said.
To foster community between the patrollers and the officers, Lawless helped organize softball games that take place in the spring. The games pit the Campus Patrollers against Security Officers in a friendly match. Lawless commented that he hoped these games would help build a strong connection between students and Security officers.
Most recently, Lawless has devoted his time and energy to the stray cat population. He became involved with the stray cats in the 1980s, when Vassar’s stray cat population began to grow.
“The idea was to keep cats out of dumpsters and out of trouble, and to find homes for them.” Lawless said.
He continued, “I’ve taken some cats home for the wife to take care of while I’m at work. We always try and get them adopted. Unfortunately, some cats just aren’t suitable to go home.”
For those cats who would not make good pets Lawless designed Cat Shacks, safe shelters that were supplied with food and water on a regular basis to help keep the cats out of trouble.
For Lawless, the stray felines are as much a member of Vassar as its students and employees. “The cats are part of our family. We love animals. Plain and simple,” he said.
Almost all of the money and time devoted towards helping the cats and other animals has come entirely out of the pockets of Lawless and the other members of the Vassar community who help out.
According to Lawless, this fact never once bothered him.
“You don’t think about that. It’s about making a safe place for the animals,” he said, adding, “It’s just enjoyable working with animals on campus.”
For the safety of the cats and the community, he tries to catch new strays as they find their way to Vassar and take them to veterinarians to get them spayed or neutered and have shots and vaccines administered.
After the trip to the vets, he will try to find a home for them or, if none can be found, will release them back onto campus and continue to care for them.
Balancing caring for the cats with his job has been time-consuming and hectic at times, but Lawless considers it to have been worthwhile.
“We have a community like a family,” he stated. “We’re trying to help out cats. That’s the bottom line.”