NYU’s treasured Timekeeper passes away at 70

Courtesy of Humans of NYU

UPDATE by Amy Zhang
October 17, 7:30 p.m.

The New York Police Department received a phone call on Monday night from Velez after he had not heard from his friend in four days, according to the NYPD and close neighbor and friend Roland Velez. At press time, the NYPD says that the cause and time of death is undetermined until results from the medical examiner’s office are returned.

Velez said that he is working with Votta’s family and friends to organize a memorial service after Votta’s final wishes and arrangements are finalized.



John Votta, also known as NYU’s Timekeeper, recently passed away in his room on West 12th Street, at age 70.

Called a “Shepherd for NYU students” by The New York Times, Votta religiously stood at the corner of Washington Square East and Washington Place. He wore a watch on each wrist and called out a countdown to students as they passed on their ways to class.

Votta, who grew up in East Harlem, lived on an $870 monthly Social Security check and paid $60 a week for a rent-regulated furnished room, according to The New York Times.

Roland Velez, a doorman near Votta’s building and a friend of his, said Votta fainted a few weeks ago and was taken to Beth Israel hospital. He added that the cause of death is still unknown and that Votta’s beneficiary is working to receive more information from the police.

“He’s been up and down this block for years,” Velez said. “He always came into the building and ran to the store for us, had coffee breaks with us, ordered coffee for us, chitchatted with us. He was a great man.”

NYU spokesman Philip Lentz said the university is saddened to learn the death of Votta, NYU’s unofficial timekeeper.

“Though not an official member of the NYU community, Mr. Votta was a beloved figure on campus, and his presence and booming voice will be missed,” Lentz said.

Edward J. Sullivan, professor of Art History, said that Votta reminded of the “town criers” that began in medieval Europe who would broadcast the important news of the day.

“The Washington Square timekeeper was a link back to a very ancient tradition of people who both tell time and look out for the public good,” Sullivan said. “He may not have known that he was a link in this historical chain but he was, and in the regard his presence will be missed.”

CAS sophomore Lesly Santos also said she was sad to hear of the timekeeper’s passing.

“I was late for class once, and he stopped and yelled at a cab so that I didn’t get hit by the cab,” Santos said.

CAS junior Brittany Lipponer said she was intimidated when she saw Votta yelling for the first time.

“Then it kept happening. It was just really endearing having him there,” Lipponer said.

Danielle Velez, Roland’s wife, said she and her husband hope to hold a memorial for Votta’s friends and family.

“[John’s] family is the people on 12th Street, the locals and the kids at NYU,” Danielle said. “John loved those kids, and they made him so happy everyday. Even when he was in the hospital, he was upset that he was missing his post at NYU. He had a really big heart and never wanted to miss a day at the school.”

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 17 print edition. Tatiana Baez is deputy university editor. Julie DeVito is a senior editor. Email them at [email protected] 



  1. John was a kind hearted, wonderful person. He was a friend to everyone who had the benefit of knowing him – every student at NYU and even all the squirrels in Washington Square. His presence and booming voice helped make going to NYU such a magical experience. He will be missed but will live on in our memories.

  2. I agree with the comment above regarding commissioning a clock in John’s memory. Not only would it be in remembrance of a kind-hearted person who helped the NYU community, but it would also be a practical addition to the park. It’s sad that those worth noticing are only valued once they pass…. I graduated from NYU years ago and one of the memories most engrained in my mind from that school is “the timekeeper.”

  3. This is such sad news. I always enjoyed his energy. And as I always forgot to wear a watch myself, he was pretty helpful too! The Class of 2010 will miss him!

  4. So sad. I was thinking of what to get him for christmas..and now that won’t happen. Wish I showed him my appreciation earlier. RIP.

  5. John scared me at first, I just though “who is this crazy loud man and why isn’t security telling him to move”. But then a cabby was racing down the street and I was running across the street to class, and John ran towards me with his hand up to the cabby, making sure I don’t get run over! 🙂 he then yelled at the cabby and told him to “watch out for the kids you jerk” and hit his car with a hand! Since then I always smiled at him :). RIP John Vatta. You were so memorable, and you…


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