A Legacy More Powerful Than The Spoken Word

We are coming up on Memorial Day, a federal holiday for remembering the those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. It is also a time of remembering family members who have passed on.  Mr. Winkler was not a member of my family and I don’t know if he was a veteran or not, but I do know his legacy is the profound impact on my view of how the world works.

Mr. Winkler (Winkie, as we affectionately called him), the custodian of Fern Ridge Elementary, was not well known by any standard. His legacy of simple acts of kindness toward me have made him unforgettable

From second grade through the sixth grade, on her way to work at the storm window factory, my mother dropped me off at school well before any teachers or other students arrived. The doors to the building were locked and I was left to wait, rain or shine, at the front doors until their official opening. My memory of exactly when and how is vague, but one day the doors opened early and I was invited in by Winkie.

My memories of him involve that mystical time in the soon-to-be-full building before the ringing of the first bell.

Undistinguished, Winkie sported a thin gray mop of hair and wore the same dark green janitor’s uniform every day.  To us he seemed quite old – a round soft and gentle man. He was quiet and peaceful.

His domain was the schools mechanical room; the deep dark womb of the building where the mysteries of the school’s custodian were hidden from view.

When he saw us at the front doors, he would let us in long before anyone else would arrive. We came to shadow him as he did his work. He did several remarkably simple things for me and two others of my classmates who occasionally were dropped off early and had nothing else to do.

Winkie was the first person I encountered at school each day.  I don’t remember a single word that he ever spoke. What I remember is the remarkably unremarkable things he did out of view of anyone else and for no apparent purpose than for my good.

Here are seven life lessons I learned from Winkie.

1. He had the keys

Winkie had the Keys. The keys to everything! He was the guardian of everything in that school. Keys show trust and authority. It was obvious to us that Winkie deserved our respect. That he had the keys inspired trust.

2. He showed us what was behind locked doors

Winkie revealed the mysteries of all the locked rooms in the school building. He taught us to respect the tools and contents and order of each room. He showed us how to use the brooms, mops, and equipment and how to store them. He showed us where to use them and when each was needed.

3. He shared the keys

After a time, he came to trust us with the keys. With that trust we were allowed to access the brooms, supplies, and sometimes the balls. He let us play with the balls but we knew when and where they belonged when we were through. He taught us that, too.

4. He showed us how to do good work well

First we shadowed him. Then he let us try to do what he did demonstrating what a good job looked and felt like. Whether I walked the halls or played in the gym I took pride in the labor I had invested in them: this was my school.

5. He gave us work

After a time he could send us to do a chore without his supervision. We delighted in being able to do it and do it well and quickly. It made us feel significant. Simple work adds to significance.

6. He was gentle, kind and patient

We were always invited in and up. Never criticized. In hindsight I can only imagine how much more work we must have caused him by our help. He never showed it if it did.

7. He was generous

He was generous with his time, his domain, and his work. Beyond that, on the last day of sixth grade, he surprised us by loading us into his 1953 Chevy fastback and took us to a local confectionery to buy all the gum we could chew. That was the one day we were allowed to chew gum in class. I recall how much my jaws hurt from chewing that big wad of gum but how happy I was at the unexpected surprise of Winkie’s generosity that made every chomp a delight.

Today, none of this would be feasible. You may have felt a great deal of dis-ease with many of the things we did without other watchful eyes protecting us. Because so many prey upon our children, few would trust the intentions of a good man like Mr. Winkler. I am grateful that wasn’t what Winkie was about. He never acted in anyway that could possibly harm us. That, too, is part of his legacy.

There you have it: a legacy of great lessons spoken into my life by a simple man whose life was lived in the shadows as a school janitor. Winkie was a leader: even though I can’t recall a single word he ever said his life spoke a legacy of volumes into mine. I thank God often for Winkie.

Have a very blessed Memorial Day.

It’s your turn to share.  Who has spoken volumes into your life?

Take a moment, scroll down to the comments section, and leave your memory.

Charlie Blair, 
Chief Engagement Officer