Campus Unlocked: Meet the Key People

Story and Photos by Ayanna Estelle

The University of Texas main campus has more than 150 buildings: there’s the Flawn Academic Center for studying and getting student IDs made; Battle Hall, a historical landmark and architectural haven; and Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium, home of the Longhorns – just to name a few. But there’s one building you’ve probably never been to. It looks nearly identical to the other old Spanish-style buildings on campus, but instead of rooms filled with students, its rooms hold something different.

Walk down 24th Street past the science buildings (if you’ve reached San Jacinto Boulevard, you’ve gone too far) until you come across an interesting sign out front. “Keys,” it says, because beyond two massive wood doors are just that – thousands and thousands of keys.

In the basement of the Keys building, behind a long wooden table with old machines, a safety-goggle-clad locksmith, David Garza, precisely cuts a fresh new key. Pieces shoot out from the machine, like embers from a burning campsite, as he saws grooves into a new key. The pieces look like wood chips when they land on the table, but they glow in the light. They’re not wood chips; they’re metal chips. “Be careful not to touch those,” Garza says. “Like wood splinters, they get stuck in your skin, but these hurt 10 times worse.”

Each of the 55,000 class and athletic rooms on campus needs a master key to be made, plus several duplicates for staff and faculty access. All are kept in safes on the first floor of the key building. When a staff member requests a key but one is not available, the request is sent downstairs to the basement where the exact key is made from scratch. The locksmiths make 20,000 keys each school year. “It’s not just ‘Hey, I need a copy of this.' There’s more to it,” Garza says. Most of his job is spent on the computer creating key systems that ensure a key in one building won’t fit into the lock of another building on campus.

But sometimes the job of a locksmith can get even more complicated; like when they are saving campus from disasters. A jokester once decided to put superglue in the locks of a campus building, and the locksmiths were the ones who spent days rekeying that building. “Oh, but the best part of the job — some of the places that our job takes us," Garza says, trying to speak over the hammering and sawing of the key machines.

Garza says he recently made a new key for the door to the carillon, the instrument that plays the bells in the tower. (Imagine Garza traveling up the 30 floors to the carillon room, past the observation deck, the last stop on the Tower Tour, to the pillars at the top of the tower where only a select few have been).  “Being that everything has a door and lock on it, we’re the ones fixing those locks, and sometimes it just happens to be the door that holds the Gutenberg Bible,” he says.