Working with senior citizens, one of the “odder” parts of my daily ritual is checking the obituary column. Granted, it began years ago when I was Director of Elections, to ensure our Board knew when a poll worker had died. It evolved into a habit, which turned into routine. I remember when two of our poll workers died the same week: Robert Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. I kid you not.
Sure, I am occasionally jarred to find the unexpected name; the parent of a kid I went to elementary school with or an adult I admired growing up. The worst was recently finding a photo of my favorite local newspaper photographer. My first thought was, “Somebody screwed up and put Keith’s head shot in the wrong column!” We’d worked together for years as he covered my department’s events. He’d always take time to speak or squeeze my shoulder in greeting. He’d give me a hug and laugh, knowing I had co-workers raising eyebrows in the background. I was shocked to discover his photo was in the right spot. Recently diagnosed with cancer, he was only 47.
Yes there are days I simply scan the names like a robot. Then there are days when I cringe, hoping I won’t find the name of one of my seniors…especially ones who’ve been ill or are in their 90s. What I found today made me sigh as the reality that time marches on slammed head on into the fact my youth is farther away than I realize. Today I found “Mr. Herbert”, a 91 year old widower. Who was he and how did he inspire me as a kid?
He was my Junior High School janitor.
I feel fortunate to have started school in a different era than my parents: I was one of the first kids to attend integrated schools. Sure, there were only 3 black kids in my elementary class, but by Junior High (yes, in the dinosaur days grades 7-9 were lumped together) we became more of a melting pot. As we began this journey towards high school, we were exposed to things we’d never had in elementary school, like male teachers. (Yes Mr. Reynolds I still know the names of most of the bones in the body and Mr. Collins, I still refer to Teddy Roosevelt as “TR”). We also began to notice more…such as how many times the Football Coach could be found at the door of our Art Teacher, Miss Matthews between classes. In many schools, the janitor was probably invisible to the kids. An adult on the other end of a push broom in the background of life as we busily scampered through the halls. Not Mr. Herbert.
Granted, that wasn’t his full name. In other parts of the country, he would’ve been addressed as Mr. Boykin. If at all. But in the south, we have a way of adding “Miss” or “Mr.” to a first name as a sign of respect. It means while we’re not close, personal friends, we’re a step closer than the formal Mr. Boykin version. Mr. Herbert not only encouraged the title, he embraced it.
Even better, he embraced us.
The years from 12-15 are fraught with all sorts of drama, much of it enhanced and overblown by hormones. His official job title may have been “Custodian”, but Mr. Herbert was our port in emotional storms. He didn’t just instruct us to slow down in the halls, whose floors he kept polished like glass, he spoke to us. Not at us. We were greeted, often by name. In fact, I think he might’ve known the name of every kid who attended that school. If not, he knew who was on the football team, who got straight A’s, who was sneaking out of class and who just needed an encouraging smile. I benefited from those smiles more than once. I can still see him, head tilted with a soft smile, as he asked a visibly upset kid what was wrong. We had Guidance Counselors and Teachers, but he was our Father Confessor. It didn't matter we were different colors, because he treated us all alike, teaching us to do the same. He was an adult we considered a friend because he cared about our petty moments of despair. His greatest gift was to listen kindly, then send us on our way with words of encouragement and a smile. Exchanging daily greetings with him wasn’t just routine, it was every much as important as doing homework or learning a new fact for the day.
If Mr. Herbert wasn’t found in the hall, you could count on kids to pop into the Office to ask where he was…and if he was okay. On the rare days he was out sick, he was greeted like a visiting dignitary upon his return, every kid on a mission to ensure Mr. Herbert knew he’d been missed. And that we’d noticed. He was such a beloved institution in our halls, one year we dedicated the yearbook to him. I think that’s the first time I ever noticed an adult swell with pride. His obituary states he held that job for 37 years.
Years later, when I was Director of Elections, a man came into my office. The Voter Registration office was closed for lunch and a sign instructed folks to climb the stairs for assistance from me. As I looked up to greet a gentleman who was probably in his 60s, a smile began to spread across my face. The words, “Mr. Herbert”, slipped from my lips with the fondness of youthful memories.
He looked at me and asked softly, “Were you one of my kids?” I nodded and he smiled in return.
As I handed him the form to fill out, he looked slightly embarrassed and muttered, “I should’ve done this a long time ago. I don’t know why I waited.”
He sounded so forlorn it made my heart hurt. To most people registering to vote is often an inconvenience. To him, not having done so was somehow a personal failure. He’d never failed us. It was time to repay the favor.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him kindly. “You’re here now. That’s what counts.“ As the smile returned to his face, I wanted to tell him how much his kindness had meant to that shy little me of so many years ago. The one who could only show her appreciation by voting “Yes” when it came to dedicating the yearbook to him. For some reason that shy little girl suddenly had my tongue and all I could murmur was, “I never forgot how nice you were to all of us.”
“I did my best,” Mr. Herbert said, handing me the signed form. He was happy to learn he’d registered in time to vote for President for the first time in his life. To some, it’s just a piece of paper. To us, it was a shared accomplishment; he’d reached one of his goals and I’d finally gotten a chance to do something to help Mr. Herbert.
As his footsteps echoed on the staircase as he exited, his words rang in my ears. “I did my best.”