Not Your Average Custodian
Kerwin Klumpers peered over his glasses Thursday afternoon, pushing his cleaning cart through a three-and-a-half-foot-high crowd. The kindergartners all know him by name and wave as they shuffle down the hall.
According to the sign above his office, Klumpers is Washington School’s Head Custodian, and as such, Klumpers said he oversees a staff of three: “I, me and myself,” he quipped.
But because of the relatively small size of the Livingston school and the independent nature of his position, he sets himself apart from the typical custodian, as he only spends about half his day performing traditional janitorial duties. The other half is dedicated to aiding the school staff with the students.
“I get to do a lot of things other custodians don’t,” he said. “If a kid comes in with a bleeder, I’m the nurse. If Sally is out, I take over the front desk.”
He said so much of the reward from this half of his job comes from watching the students develop, who at this early stage of their lives, are still learning the basics of being a human.
“They cannot put their coats on to save their lives at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Now they can do it themselves.”
Even so, dozens of children flooding the halls to wiggle into all of their snow gear takes significant time, especially when conditions are as frigid as they were last week. Snow pants must be cinched, boots Velcroed and hats fitted. Gloves are especially tricky — navigating each little finger into the five finger holes of the glove can be a challenge. Again, Klumpers comes to the rescue in the winter wardrobe department.
Klumpers hails from Waupun, Wisconsin, a town of about 11,000 as of the 2010 census. As a teenager, he and his family performed janitorial work in a high school there.
Before eventually circling back to the custodial realm in Montana, the 51-year-old Wisconsin native traveled all around North America as a microscope repairman for 18 years. While the traveling had its kicks, the downside he said, was never being home. He said he’d be gone three weeks to three months at a time. These extended absences played a big part in him never having any children of his own, aside from his step-daughter.
“How do you go from no kids to 120?” he laughed, referring to the Washington School student body.
An elk hunt brought Klumpers to the area for the first time in the late 80s and the trip inspired him to move here in 1990. He and his wife Rose wed in 1997.
Rose worked as a para-educator for the Livingston School District, and Kerwin, seeking a change of pace from the traveling job, began as a substitute custodian for the district. During those subbing jobs, he realized how much he enjoyed spending time with kids.
When a full-time custodial position opened up at Sleeping Giant Middle School about nine years ago, he had to apply. He got it, and about three years ago he took the opportunity to move to the elementary school.
Something else Klumpers now has in his line of work is camaraderie, and he appreciates the high degree of it at Washington.
“You never hear from the staff around here: ‘That’s not my job.’”
And when the staff can find time for a little fun, they do.
Para-educator Catherine Kozacik is known to make off with Klumpers’ cleaning cart and hide it from him, often at particularly inconvenient times.
Of course, these stunts did not go unreciprocated.
“So I hocked her coat,” Klumpers said with a grin. “Now my cart hasn’t gone missing in awhile.”
On Thursday afternoon, one student decided to check out of his class a little early. He made a run for it down the hall, his teacher hot on his heels. Mr. Klumpers abandoned his cart and slid in with the assist, catching the student well before he reached an exit.
“We had one kid make it all the way to Spur Line one time,” Klumpers said, a nearly 600-foot-long dash as a crow flies, across the railroad tracks and Highway 10 West to the popular Livingston feed and gift store.
When the chaos of preparing the children for pickup by their parents at the end of the school day winds down, Klumpers spends the next couple of hours fulfilling more traditional custodial duties: namely sweeping, mopping and vacuuming.
As he cleaned the floor of the computer classroom, one student stayed behind to deliver a note to Klumpers.
“I’m sorry,” the student said, passing the piece of paper.
It was a one sentence-long apology letter, addressed to “Mr. Klumpers,” for coloring on the floor in another classroom.
But lunch time is when Klumpers must always be on his A game. The kids were extra antsy last week from having indoor recesses thanks to the single-digit temperatures. On Friday, Klumpers was on condiment duty, dispensing the student’s choice of ketchup or mustard.
“Aha! Farting ketchup!” one girl exclaimed in line as Klumpers squeezed the bottle.
At lunch, some of the students talked about their school custodian.
“He’s good,” said Kodiak Spotted Bear. “He cleans the tables and the bathrooms.”
“There was a mess on the toilet earlier this week,” Keagan Seely chimed in.
Before Klumpers finished with the lunch line, one boy broke into tears and rushed back up to the line.
“Mr. Klumpers!” he cried between sobs.
Another student had allegedly knocked his corn dog on the floor before he could even get his second bite out of it.
Within a minute, Klumpers had the bereft student set up with a new corn dog and chattering happily again back as his table.
“Crisis averted,” he chuckled.
After both lunch groups of children had cycled through the cafeteria for their lunch, and the din died away as they moved down the hall for recess, Klumpers sought a tray for himself. The school lunch lady, Karen Little, had taken the liberty to prepare a tray for him.
“Finally, it’s my lunch time,” he said, catching his breath and settling down on the table in the center of the room.
Hunter D’Antuono may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.