Jeff Hammer: Custodians I have known

During spring break in the year 1989, when other married couples were off visiting relatives or lounging on a beach in a warmer climate somewhere, my wife and I, along with our only daughter at the time and my mother, traveled the six hundred miles to Battle Mountain, Nevada for job interviews. I would during the coming summer complete my requirements to earn an elementary education teaching degree, and I needed a job. My wife was teaching at West Elementary at the time, but then, as now, two incomes seems to be a necessity.

The roads leading from Lander to northen Nevada were horrendous. I remember breaking trail through about three inches of frozen snow from Fontenelle Reservoir to Kemmerer. A relaxing vacation, it wasn’t.

Wyoming was in the midst of an economic downturn at the time. The iron ore mine at Atlantic City and the uranium mines in Jeffery City and Gas Hills had shut down a few years before. Consequently, Lander had lost a few thousand residents, including many school-aged kids, and teaching jobs were almost nonexistent; but the economic conditions in Nevada were much better. The price of gold was healthy, and the northern Nevada gold mines were going full tilt.

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Having never been to Battle Mountain before, I was excited to see the town, and I was hopeful about its possibilities, both professionally and its outdoor prospects. In a previous telephone conversation with the elementary principal there, he described the area as “high desert with a lot of hunting and fishing opportunities.” My kind of place.

As we rolled into town a little before dark, I was honestly a little underwhelmed, both with the downtown area and what residential areas we could see, which I admit was limited. Given that the area was experiencing an economic boom, I expected an expanding business section of recent construction and an atmosphere of optimism and excitement among the residents we would meet. 

Not so.

The desk clerk of our hotel, who checked us in, seemed tired and disinterested. The waitress who waited on us at the only eating establishment open at that not so late hour was very friendly, but the place was old, the fake leather seats of our booth cracked here and there from many years of use.

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Our job interviews for 6th grade positions the next morning were early, and it seemed obvious to me that my interview, at least, was a formality. The job was mine if I wanted it, which raised a red flag for no other reason than maybe there were no other applicants. Now, why would that be? 

Later, we drove around town, hopeful that maybe our first impressions were wrong, but not only were there no new and thriving businesses in town, but there was not one new stick-built house being constructed anywhere. Mobile homes, some of newer construction, but mostly older ones, seemed to be the best that would be available for living arrangements. The town just had a sense of impermanence about it that was a little unsettling.

I think when any couple with children is faced with the possibility of moving to a new community, they must answer two very important questions: Is this where we want to raise our children and can we be happy living and working here? Without much discussion, we knew the answer to both of those questions.

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My mother, who came along on the trip to spoil Erin and care for her while we interviewed, had uncharacteristically remained rather noncommittal since we had arrived in town. Anyone who knew her could honestly say that she had an opinion about nearly everything and wasn’t shy about sharing it.

Sensing our disappointment, she turned out to be the voice of optimism. 

“Well,” she asked, “What other towns are around here? We have to be here for another night. Maybe you could call nearby school districts and see if you could interview there.”

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The only town of any significance nearby was Winnemucca, fifty miles to the west, so we contacted the superintendent’s office there and were directed to the principal at the Winnemucca Grammar School, Ann Miller. After explaining our situation, that we could only be in town for the day, she indicated that she would have at least a couple of openings in the fall. She would be happy to make time for a couple of interviews if it meant filling those openings. 

 A short time later, when we arrived in Winnemucca after exiting I-80, we found a community somewhat similar to Lander and about the same size. The feel of the business district was totally different from Battle Mountain with new construction and well cared for older buildings. We immediately felt better about the town within just a few minutes.

The short version is that our interviews went well. Ann promised to contact us in about a week to let us know if she would offer us teaching positions, which she did and we accepted.

Which all explains, in a roundabout, totally unintentional way how I came to know Scott Ashby, who was the Grammar School’s head custodian. Not only was he a hard working employee, but he became one of my good friends there and he and his family made our moving to Winnemucca much easier than it could have been.

My most vivid memories of him are seeing him performing any number of tasks around the school building, but always with sweat beading on his forehead and streaming down his face; and I never remember him standing still unless it was to share a humorous anecdote or to have conversation about our respective families or about a hunting or fishing adventure.

During our first fall there, he volunteered his time away from his wife and young daughter to help me lay sod in our front yard on an extremely warm Saturday. Over the next five years, we hunted and fished together as often as we could, and our families camped together at least once that I remember.

Many weekday mornings we played pick up basketball games for about forty-five minutes at the middle school gymnasium before school started. Participants included the school district’s superintendent and his second in command, teachers, custodians…any district employee was welcome. During that time, there was no chain of command as we were all equals then. Not only was that activity physically healthy, it made for a healthy work environment. 

I mention him, not only because he was an exceptional friend, which he was, but also because I came to understand that nearly all of the custodians I have encountered over the next three decades were more often than not cut from the same cloth. 

Harvey Charging was an older gentleman when I met him at Fort Washakie School, and he was still there when I left five years later. Displaying a keen sense of humor, Harvey was equally hard working, and he never missed a thing. He was a source of wisdom and chuckles that made my limited time with him a delight. 

I have always been terrible at remembering names, and I am ashamed for not remembering this woman’s first and last names, but I will always remember her nickname of “Dogie.” Also at Fort Washakie School, she was a hard worker and possessed a fine sense of humor. What sticks in my memory most about Dogie, though, was her willingness to help me better understand the Eastern Shoshone culture, which helped my daily navigation of working at a school district whose patrons understood a culture different from the one in which I was raised.

At North Elementary and later at the Lander Middle School, Monty Richardson and Bert Simpson proved to be not only capable employees, but also generous individuals: Monty with his time and Bert with his money. 

Many times, when I was at school on Sunday evening, getting ready for the coming week, Monty would also be there checking his building for anything out of the ordinary that may have occurred during the weekend; and Bert would sell all of his aluminum cans he had collected over many months and give the proceeds to our the sixth grade students to help support our annual trip to Yellowstone National Park. Sometimes, he would just write a check.

Later, at the middle school, Pat Mowrey has been and is still performing his head custodian duties admirably. 

I must apologize to all the custodians I’ve known but whose names I haven’t included here. Space prevents me from doing so. I mention all these outstanding employees because they share one important characteristic that separates them from their brethren not working at public schools. Besides demonstrating the utmost pride in their work and striving to provide a clean and safe working and learning environment for staff and students, these ladies and gentlemen just plain enjoy being around children.

They may have originally started their employment out of economic necessity, but they stayed because of the kids. To me, it’s as simple as that.

Although not teachers in the formal sense, they nonetheless provide selfless examples to students of dedication and hard work, two really good human characteristics, and are thus educators by example. Perceptive students understand this and appreciate their commitment to providing a clean and safe space to learn, as do staff members. 

They are as vital to the education of our children as any other school district employee, regardless of position.

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