The hallway at Oakland Junior High School is partially lit by fluorescent bulbs that hum over stacks of chairs and tables. On this August day, the building has that chalky school smell with a whiff of generic cleaning products — taking you back to the days when you roamed halls just like these.
This is where Bill Hawthorne has worked for 10 years. As he tours Oakland, Hawthorne talks about his summer projects — waxing the linoleum floors and cleaning the carpets. The furniture must be moved out of each room so the floors can be properly cleaned.
The head custodian keeps the rooms with the freshly washed carpets cold in an effort to speed up the drying process. In one of these rooms, he touches the carpet, feeling that it’s still damp.
“It’s not drying the way I want it to,” he says, shaking his head as if to tell the carpet to hurry up.
Hawthorne notices the little things — a scratch on the floor, a loose table leg, dusty corners. He calls himself a perfectionist, the kind of guy who glances first into the corners of a grocery store to see if they’re clean. He is displeased when he sees a mark on the floor that was simply waxed over without being scrubbed.
“People probably wonder what I’m looking at,” he says.
Hawthorne is one of more than 140 custodians at Columbia Public Schools. Custodians earn wages starting at $8.07 per hour, and they have the chance to move up to head custodian with experience.
Hawthorne grew up in Rolla. His first job, at age 16, was shining shoes in a barber shop, which he cleaned on Saturdays. He says he learned a lot from an older man who worked down the street.
“He gave me a few tips — how to use a buffer, how to get the corners … things other people wouldn’t notice,” Hawthorne says.
He is thorough in his work, thanks to the little things he learned as a young man. While cleaning a basement classroom, he begins in the same way — filling what he calls a “slop bucket” and a “rinse bucket.” First, he uses the water from the slop bucket and gets the floors good and wet. Then it’s time for the hand scrubber. He pulls the large scrubber out of the closet, making sure to get the right pad for the job, and drags it down the hall. He drops the pad on the floor and carefully lines the scrubber on top. The pad sticks to the bottom of the scrubber, and he’s ready to go.
Hawthorne, 60, attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City before a stint in the Army during the Vietnam War. He later attended Columbia College in Springfield before transferring to the Columbia campus. He then moved to California to be with his daughter, one of his three children.
He worked as a custodial supervisor before coming back to Missouri to work for the school district. In all, he has about 25 years of experience as a custodian.
Hawthorne says he enjoys the challenge of his work and even considers himself a handyman.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world,” he says. “When someone asks me to do something, I try it and it works.”
On this day, he slowly scrubs in a neat line, following the natural rows of the square tile. He makes sure to get the corners first, leaning on the machine to get at a spot. The scrubber whirs quietly as Hawthorne leans over it, staring intently at the ground.
“You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing,” he says. He is so precise in his pattern that the soap suds begin to look like foam the ocean has abandoned on the sand.
Hawthorne says he feels a sense of pride when he sees the work he and his staff of six have done.
“I like to see things clean,” he says.
Sherry Colwell, office manager at Oakland for 10 years, says Hawthorne is indispensable.
“He’s aware of the needs in the building,” she says. “He’ll walk through a room and notice things — he’ll make a mental list.”
Hawthorne believes a person has to want to be a custodian to succeed in the job. He says he’s dealt with many people who just want a job, but Hawthorne says he thinks attitude and drive are the keys to being a good custodian.
“You have to do it right the first time,” he says. “You lose time if you have to do it again.”
After the tile has been scrubbed, Hawthorne pulls out the vacuum. This machine is louder, whining as it pulls in the surface water. When it hits a big puddle, it sounds like an elephant’s call.
Hawthorne says he enjoys watching the students at Oakland grow up and later reading about some of them in the newspaper or hearing that they went to college.
He says he thinks it is important for the students to see him working every day because they need to be there every day, too.
“You’re going to learn something just by being here,” he says.
Assistant Principal Tim Wright says that even though interacting with students isn’t in Hawthorne’s job description, he has developed a rapport with them through conversations before or after school. He says the students are protective of Hawthorne.
“I can’t think of a time when a kid has disrespected him,” Wright says.
Back in the classroom, it’s time for Hawthorne to dip into the rinse bucket.
“Your mop is just like a washing machine,” he says, pulsing it up and down in the bucket.
“Never put the whole mop on the floor,” he adds, flipping it across the floor in the same pattern he used when scrubbing.
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, participating in some rhythmic dance. The floor begins to shine as the soap suds are wiped away.
Hawthorne’s “pride and joy” is the white linoleum floor in the front entrance. He says he doesn’t let anyone else scrub it because it’s his favorite job.
He finishes and works himself into the doorway, surveying the room with a reflective look in his eyes. Sweat has beaded on his forehead, and he wipes it away as he turns to his supplies.
In the utility closet, he rinses out the buckets and the mops, winds the cords on the machines and puts them away. He turns off the lights and heads down the cluttered hallway.
Tomorrow it will be time to wax the floor, Hawthorne’s favorite part.
“It’s going to shine,” he says.