University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

June 19, 2018

U-M's Uncle Jimmy

April 10, 2017

U-M's Uncle Jimmy

Old school: U-M in History

Topic: History

James Ottley, the University of Michigan's custodian and "hatman," was known to scores of U-M students as Uncle Jimmy. (Photo courtesy of Stories of the Staff)

James Ottley arrived in Ann Arbor at the start of the Civil War. He had previously served as a cabin boy in the British navy and a valet in the "great house" of a British lord. At the University of Michigan, he was the campus janitor known as Uncle Jimmy. Ottley's commitment to working for the university spanned half a century. For years, the janitor carried firewood to campus stoves and cleaned, but once he was judged unfit for heavy manual labor he got a new post at U-M: "hat man." As the hat man in the library, Ottley checked students' hats and coats for about 18 years. Each year, students gave donations to help pay for Uncle Jimmy's Thanksgiving turkey. When Ottley died in 1910, a little safe he kept was found to hold $14,000 in savings.

— Adapted from "Campus Characters" by James Tobin. To read more, go to


Tags: Old School