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The keeper

For 35 years, head custodian Russ Andrews has walked the halls of Wadena-Deer Creek schools, keys jangling from his jeans and blue shirt uniform, cleaning the floors, checking the boilers and preparing classrooms for students. The distinction of being a long-serving employee is an honor that comes somewhat unexpectedly for Andrews.

"I didn't think I'd be here longer than six months," he said.

The modest 61-year-old views his long career as a learning experience -- an experience shaped by the man who hired him and the employees under him.

Andrews trained to be a machinist at Staples Technical College, but a job offer in 1970 for full-time custodial work permanently redirected his career path. He had worked part time as a custodian for Wadena schools since 1968.

"I liked the job, and when Charles Beyer asked me if wanted the [full-time] job, I said, 'Sure,'" Andrews said.

Beyer was the head custodian of the district at the time and a man Andrews deeply admires.

"Charles Beyer was the nicest man I had ever met," he said. "He always gave me the benefit of the doubt, second, sometimes third chances."

Andrews learned from the chances Beyer gave him.

"He's like a second father to me," he said. "Charlie Beyer took a 23-year-old kid and turned him into a man."

The recollection of his old boss created a minor leak from behind Andrews's glasses -- a leak an experienced janitor quickly stopped with a few finger swipes.

Andrews worked at the high school for 10 years, the technical school for three years and spent the rest of his career at the elementary school. He took a one-year sabbatical in 1980 to attend Oak Hills Bible Institute near Bemidji before returning to Wadena schools in 1981.

Throughout his career Andrews learned a lot from Beyer and others about plumbing, electrical work and even some carpentry, he said. But the most important lesson he has learned is how to listen to other people.

"God gave one mouth and two ears," Andrews said. "You can learn so much from other people. I've learned more from my workers than I've taught them, I think."

The members of Andrews's custodial staff have each brought their own skills and expertise to the job, he said.

"It takes a team to score in any ball game, and I do have a good team," he said.

Andrews has led his team into action to take care of many of minor disasters, such as the time a broken faucet flooded three rooms with an inch of water in 1993.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," he said. "The rooms looked like actual lakes."

However, the most recent cleanup was not for an accident, but an act of vandalism that took place Aug. 25.

"When I first came in, I saw some kids' clothes on the floor," he said about his arrival at the school at 5:45 a.m. "I thought somebody hadn't picked everything up. As I got further, it got worse, glass was broken, paint on the walls, cupboards tipped over."

Andrews said it was disheartening to see the mess the vandals created. The custodians had worked hard over the summer to prepare for the arrival of the fifth- and sixth-grade classes from Deer Creek. But in spite of the other work they had to do before school started, his staff finished the cleanup by the next morning.

The incident was the first vandalism Andrews has witnessed during his 35-year career at the school, he said. He has rarely had to clean up any significant messes created by the students or other people.

"On the whole, most of the Wadena kids are pretty good," he said.

However, taking care of the careless acts of others is all part of the responsibility that goes with his job. He takes the responsibility of taking care of the school seriously.

"You're looking at it," he said about what he is in charge of. "Anything that's in this building is my responsibility. Anything to do with repair work and making it work."

In five months, Andrews will retire as head custodian of WDC Elementary School, but he hopes to hang on to his collection of keys.

"I want to retire, but I want to fill in part time whenever I can, if at all possible," he said. "I would like to come back and work here until I can't work anymore."