It was past midnight, and all was quiet inside Robsham Theater, a sprawling performance space at Boston College.
Fred Vautour sponged down sinks, scrubbed toilets, and polished mirrors. Pushing a yellow cart loaded with a mop, broom, and cleaning supplies, he moved on to the hallway, where he swept up paper scraps and cleaned the large windows looking onto the campus. In the distance, the Gothic towers of Gasson Hall and Bapst Library faded into the dark sky. In a little more than 12 hours, Elizabeth Warren was coming to speak on economic inequality.
For the last 15 years of his long working life, Vautour, 62, has performed his painstaking rounds on the graveyard shift at Robsham Theater as if they were a calling. And, in a sense, they are.
Next month, his youngest child will collect her nursing degree from BC, and Vautour’s triumph will be complete: The night-shift custodian will have put all five of his children — Amy, John, Michael, Thomas, and Alicia — through Boston College.
“It kind of gives you the tingles,” Vautour said. “We became a big BC alumni family.”
Vautour said he never could have afforded a college education for five children on his salary of $60,000 a year. His wife, Debra, was a homemaker who now works the front desk at the Waltham Senior Center.
But because Vautour is a BC employee, all five children were able to attend the college tuition-free, which knocked about $51,000 off of BC’s $66,000 annual price tag. After scholarships, Vautour said, each child’s college education cost him about $3,000 per year.
Knowing that five college degrees were in reach kept him going, he said, night after night and year after year.
“It gave me a reason to be here,” Vautour said. “I used to joke with the vice president that I’d actually work for nothing because my kids are here because of that perk. I could care less if they even gave me a raise because my kids came here.”
Vautour’s children all lived on campus and would occasionally stop by and visit him while he cleaned Robsham Theater.
Michael, a mortgage writer at Wells Fargo who graduated in 2009, recalled one night after a party sophomore year when he and some friends knocked on a window at the theater. Fred Vautour, broom and dustpan in hand, opened the door.
“I told my buddy, ‘My dad works here, and it’s one of the reasons we can afford to go here,’ ” Michael said.
The friend was so moved, he pulled Fred Vautour in for a hug.
“I was like, ‘All right, buddy, calm down,’ ” Michael said.
‘It gave me a reason to be here. . . . I could care less if they even gave me a raise because my kids came here.’Fred Vautour, Boston College janitor, on his children being able to attend the prestigious school at a reduced cost
Alicia said she has experienced a similar reaction from friends.
“When I tell people my dad is a custodian here, they are dumbfounded that all five of us were able to come here,” she said. “I definitely feel like I appreciate being here more than some of my friends do.”
Still, when his children visited him at work, they weren’t always there to express their thanks. Usually, Vautour said, the boys dropped off laundry for him to take home. Now, when Vautour gets off his shift on Mondays at 7:30 a.m., he baby-sits for John’s 2-year-old son, Adam.
“People abuse me,” he said with a laugh. “They don’t think I need sleep.”
But hard work has been part of his life since he was young. College was never in his plans.
Vautour started washing dishes at Ritcey’s Seafood Kitchen in Waltham when he was 14. At 16, he was a full-time cook at Ritcey’s, turning out baked scrod, haddock, and Lazy Man’s lobster. He stayed at the restaurant until he was 41. That’s when he heard that BC was looking for a cook. In 1994, he landed the job, which gave him vacation and sick days for the first time in his life.
He would bring his children for bacon and eggs before his shift started at Corcoran Commons. At lunchtime, students lined up for his barbecued chicken sandwiches and called him “Fred the Chicken Man.” It was not easy work.
“I went from à la carte to cooking for 2,300 at a sitting,” Vautour said. “You’re go-go-go. I started to get carpal tunnel, and my back was killing me.”
So he became a nighttime custodian, which gave him better pay and allowed him to work alone, mopping, vacuuming, and sweeping Robsham Theater, which includes a 567-seat main stage as well as classrooms, a black box theater, and a dance studio.
“I felt like I had suddenly retired compared to cooking,” Vautour said.
All five of his children wanted go to BC, he said. And all five excelled in sports and academics at Waltham High School.
“Tommy was the only one I was worried about because he just ho-hummed it,” Vautour said. “The only other college he applied to was Bentley — and he got wait-listed.”
BC spokesman Jack Dunn said employees’ children receive a discount but must gain admission based on their abilities.
“The bottom line is that Fred had smart kids,” Dunn said.
Every time a child was accepted at BC, the Vautours framed the letter and displayed it next to a maroon-and-gold clock on the wall of their “BC room” by the kitchen.
Vautour recalled when Amy, his eldest, who graduated in 2002 and now works as a fund-raiser, got her letter in the mail.
“I was coaching Little League with my sons, down at the park on South Street, and all of a sudden, my wife and daughter come in with a bunch of BC balloons, and there I am with the other coaches and the kids, and she starts crying, and I start crying,” Vautour said. “Then I’m laughing because everybody’s looking at me.”
When Alicia became the last child to get her thick envelope, the whole family — including Brooke, a Maltese-Shih Tzu — dressed up in BC gear and surprised her with the news.
“I think with each kid, he just got more and more proud,” Alicia said. “It will be interesting to see on graduation day. I’m sure he’s going to have tears of joy that we’ve all made it through.”