2018-02-22 / Life in Leelanau

Unsung Heroes: Custodians make big difference behind the scenes

By Jen Murphy
Of The Enterprise staff


TIM MCNEIL, maintenance director of Leland Public Schools, changes a light bulb in the school lobby. TIM MCNEIL, maintenance director of Leland Public Schools, changes a light bulb in the school lobby. Every school has heroes, whether it’s a teacher who helps a struggling student, a student who cheers up a friend or an administrator who works to get a student back on track.

But what about the unsung heroes, the ones who actually keep the building itself up and running?

It’s often a thankless job.

John Heckroth, director of maintenance at Northport Public Schools, understands.

“We don’t get a lot of pats on the back,” Heckroth said. “We aren’t teaching in the classroom, but we are keeping a clean and comfortable learning environment. If it’s too cold or something is broken, then you start getting calls. People may not notice when things are running properly, but they sure notice if they aren’t.”

He said most people would be surprised at what a physical job it is.


“I JUST go get the job done,” said Leland’s maintenance director, Tim McNeil. “I’m here when people need me.” “I JUST go get the job done,” said Leland’s maintenance director, Tim McNeil. “I’m here when people need me.” “Janitor is just a negative term,” he said. “You hear things like ‘they just push a broom.’ I’d ask, ‘have you ever done it?’ They’re responsible for keeping these kids healthy. They’re disinfecting door handles, locker handles; keeping bathrooms and lunchrooms clean.”

Despite some of the stereotypes, Heckroth says he loves his job.

“We have a small custodial staff and we are lucky,” he said. “We have a great staff that really cares about the school they work for. I like being able to help out where I can with the kids’ education, and when you see the smiles on faces and get a thank you from a teacher for going above and beyond, that’s a definite high of the job.

“Sometimes you just are juggling a lot. You need to be able to prioritize.”

Juggling can include anything from changing light bulbs to working with external contractors on large-scale projects. Heckroth played a major role in the design and construction of the new front entrance to the school.

And he’s no stranger to electrical, plumbing, lawn care, snow removal and cleaning when necessary.

“Every day is different,” he said.

The maintenance director at Leland Public Schools, Tim McNeil, said his days are full of tasks similar to Heckroth’s.

“My day, especially in the winter, starts about 3:45 a.m.,” McNeil said. “We’re here by 4:30 a.m. to scrape and salt sidewalks, and to help with plowing and snow removal.”

Students arrive about four hours later, and if any problems arise with buses, McNeil will tackle that work next. The rest of the day is filled with whatever else needs to get done.

He’s busy, that’s for sure.

“I just go get the job done,” McNeil said. “I’m here when people need me.”

And typically that includes holiday breaks and summers.

Heckroth said he and his team can usually be found at school when students and teachers enjoy a day off.

“It’s a good time for extra disinfecting and sanitizing to keep the flu bug out of school as best as we can,” he said. “When there’s no school, that’s the best time to get work done.”

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