A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Job I Ever Had

The Gardner Building Lecture Hall, vacuumed daily by me.
In the fall of 1974, I had just graduated from Waldron High School, and my twin sister and I were very excited about going away to college.  "Away" was actually 50 miles north up Highway 71, to the big city of Fort Smith, Arkansas.  There, we would live with my older brother Gary and his wife and attend a two-year community college called Westark.  Although we would be coming home on weekends, the whole thing still seemed like a pretty big deal, and Janet and I could hardly wait to get started.

We had both worked during the summer after high school, she at the local Department of Human Services and me at the Scott County Road Department, and by pooling our money we had been able to buy a very nice 1973 Buick Century, which, being twins, we shared.  To afford college, we knew we would both have to find part time jobs.  Fortunately, my sister-in-law worked at Westark and was able to arrange for jobs for both of us.  Janet would be a student worker in my sister-in-law's office, and I had a job at the campus book store.  When I found out about my job during that summer before classes began, I felt that my vast experience as a sweeper in high school would be squandered, so I asked my sister-in-law if there were any jobs available of a custodial nature.  Yes, I, in another of my brilliant moves, traded a cushy clerical job in which I would undoubtedly be surrounded by beautiful coeds all day for a job in which I would be surrounded by what surely would be lesser companionship.  Brilliant.

But, nevertheless, my sister-in-law was able to find me a custodial job.  It was to be quite different from my high school job as a sweeper.  This was a job that would allow me to experience the beautiful outdoors.  I would spend three hours each day walking around the expansive Westark campus, a plastic trash can in one hand and a "grabber" in the other, picking up trash that had found its way onto the campus grounds. 

Those first few days at Westark took on a dreamlike state.  The place seemed so big, and college was so different from high school!  It was exciting to be there, but that was tinged with just a little bit of homesickness, too.  It's amazing how powerful music is.  One of the popular songs of that day was Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me."  I remember hearing that song on my first day at Westark, as I walked through the student center.  Now, whenever I hear that song, I am immediately transported back to that moment, feeling the exact emotions I felt that day.

Although rather common now, I was rather intrigued with the mechanical grabber that I was provided with for the job.  On my first day Tom, one of the custodians who was more or less my supervisor, was dispatched to a local convenience store to buy a new grabber, because the one used by my predecessor was completely worn out.  So, grabber in hand, I set about to walk all around the campus, picking up litter.  When I would fill my trash bucket, which I did several times each day, I would find a dumpster and empty the contents, then start again.

I discovered a couple of perks quite quickly.  The first was coke bottles.  Now please understand, in the south, when we say coke we are not referring specifically to Coca-Cola; in my neck of the woods any brand of soft drink is called a coke.  As in, "What kinda coke you want, Bubba?"  So, as I walked, anytime I came across an empty "coke" bottle, I carefully placed it in my trash can, and was careful to take it out before depositing the rest of the contents into a dumpster.  In those days, empty coke bottles were worth from three to five cents apiece, depending on where you redeemed them, so a trunk full of coke bottles could provide a little bit of spending money.  And I would usually find enough to redeem them every month or so.  The other perk was actual money, which I did find on rare occasions.  Oh, I often found a nickel or dime or quarter.  But, there was the occasional great day when I would find a dollar, or maybe even a five.  That would prove to be a great supplement to my $1.75 per hour salary.

The other benefits of the job were less obvious to me at the time.  I don't think it's bragging to tell you that I don't think I missed a day of work that year.  Every day, rain or shine, during the hot and humid days of late August and early September, through the frigid days of January and February, I was out there, making my rounds.  I would start at the student center, work my way down the main parking lot, then head west toward the gym.  At the corner I would turn back north, working my way past the baseball field up toward the building that lined Grand Avenue, the main part of the campus.  At the Science Building, I would head east, past the little Holt Building that housed the library (one of my favorite places on campus), then past the Ballman-Speer building where the music students took their classes, then past the Vines Building, which housed most of the administrative offices on campus (and where I would work some 35 years later), then around the new Gardner Building at the corner of Grand and Waldron

As you can see, that was quite a bit of walking.  So, without really trying, I found that the excess weight that I had acquired during my junior high and high school days began melting off.  The greatest of all the perks of the job was the three hours of exercise that I got each day. 

I also learned the value of showing up for work.  With that came another lesson on how to treat people.  One cold February day, I was picking up trash outside the Holt Building.  The door opened, and Dr. Curtis Ivery stepped outside.  Dr. Ivery didn't know me, and I was not one of his students, but he had stepped outside just to talk to me.  "I've noticed that you're out here every day, picking up trash," Dr. Ivery said.  "I just want to tell you how nice the campus looks because of you, and that I appreciate the work you're doing."  With that, he smiled and went back inside. 

I think I stood there for a brief moment.  No one had ever acknowledged me before, or the seemingly insignificant work I was doing, but Dr. Ivery had taken the time to do it. 

The memory of Dr. Ivery's words stayed with me, and in all my subsequent jobs, as a teacher, a principal, and a learning center director, I have always tried to do what Dr. Ivery did; take the time to acknowledge other people's work.  A couple of years ago, I googled Dr. Ivery's name and found an email address for him; he's now an official at a college up north.  I related my recollection to Dr. Ivery, and thanked him after 35 years or so.  He sent back an extremely gracious and complimentary email, which was no surprise.

Well, I guess Tom and the other custodians were pleased with my work, because the next year I got a promotion.  I was to be the student worker janitor for the Gardner Building.  That year, my job consisted of taking a large rolling trash can to every location in the building and emptying the trash.  Then, I would vacuum the carpet in the large lecture hall on the first floor, and then the carpet in all the offices upstairs.  So, I had a little more human interaction in my new job, but I kind of missed getting to work by myself. 

I recall one somewhat amusing but unfortunate incident that occurred.  The nursing department was in the Gardner Building, and the lady who was the Director of the department had an office upstairs.  In her office was a braided rug that came from an Indian reservation out west.  She was quite proud of her rug, but it didn't have to be vacuumed very often.  But one day, she decided that it probably needed it, so she asked me to vacuum it.  I fired up my vacuum and worked diligently, but when I finished I looked around and the air in her office was completely filled with dust.  She walked back into her office, and I sheepishly retreated, leaving her standing there gaping at her uninhabitable office.

After two years at Westark, it was time to transfer to a four-year college.  My choice was Arkansas Tech in Russellville.  I'll write about that in another post sometime.   But I cherish my time at Westark, and the hours spent walking around that pretty little campus, working at the best job I ever had.

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