Every summer before school starts, Duwayne Ulrich is hard at work, cleaning and waxing floors, tying up loose ends and waiting for the pitter-patter of feet to break the silence in the empty halls.
Then late August arrives and solitude meets insanity.
Ulrich, the head custodian at Flathead High School, hasn’t strayed far from his upbringing. Nearly four decades ago, he graduated from FHS, as his mother Bonnie had in 1939. His two daughters also went to the school. In 1970, the year Ulrich graduated, the freshmen class moved to the junior high. Then last year, because of the addition of Glacier High School, freshman were back at the school for the first time in 38 years.
Ulrich, though, remembers discussion of a second high school when he was a senior, proving, he said, that it takes a long time to get things done.
“I’ve learned a lot more since I’ve worked here than I did when I went to school here,” Ulrich said. “You have a tendency to look at the reader board when you walk by now. Back then, I had other things on my mind.”
But the 56-year-old Ulrich, who splits his time between Philipsburg and Kalispell, isn’t the only master of the custodial arts with roots at Flathead High. Shanon O’Lexey and Ron Glasgow were also FHS students.
O’Lexey, who graduated in 1986 and grew up around Ulrich, was a dishwasher before he picked up a mop and took on the duty of cleaning the school’s toilets. Before FHS remodeled several parts of the school, O’Lexey had 96 individual toilets to clean. Now he has more than 100.
But he said he likes his new digs and has “gotten to know every corner of the school.” During his earliest days on the job he encountered a number of things he left behind years ago.
“I found my older locker,” he said with a giddy laugh. “I found an old desk that I had marked on too.”
O’Lexey, who said he probably marked an “S” for sophomore or left his initials and “wuz here,” didn’t behave much differently than high schoolers of today. In fact, his counterpart Glasgow, a 1979 graduate, spent a good deal of time painting over expressive words left on the grout in between tiles in the boys’ bathrooms. The graffiti usually has no more than four letters but sometimes less racy things are spelled out like, “Jesus saves.”
Each of the nine janitors at FHS is responsible for about 33,000 square feet daily. That’s more than 10,000 square feet above the national average per janitor. While messes give janitors their livelihood, Ulrich could do with a few less every once in awhile.
“You can clean an area and by the next day at 8 a.m. it looks like no one was ever there,” Ulrich said. “Sometimes there are light days and other times you are pulling out your hair.”
But Ulrich isn’t harping on the kids. He seems to have a good relationship with the students, saying interaction between the two groups is important to his staff. Janitors, though, remain an elusive group. They take care of the things others avoid. And sometimes they provide insight into subject matter foreign to students with even the brightest futures.
FHS senior quarterback Brock Osweiler and Glasgow have a special bond.
One day in the hall Glasgow asked Osweiler about a few lesser-known NFL quarterbacks. Osweiler didn’t recognize their names. So Glasgow, who wears an old Seattle Seahawks hat, asked the 6-foot-8 all-state football and basketball player if he knew who Brett Favre and Peyton Manning were. Osweiler grinned and said, “yes.”
Glasgow then asked him what makes those quarterbacks great. Osweiler shrugged and Glasgow held up his hand and said, “It’s because they gave the janitor a high five when they saw him in the hallway.”
Now whenever the two cross paths they hold up their hands and slap skin, and Osweiler says: “Road to success.”
Not too long ago, janitors’ titles were officially changed to environmental service technician. But if you ask Ulrich, “custodian” or “janitor” works just fine. When it comes to his job, titles are the least of his concerns – there’s always a mess waiting to be cleaned.
“It doesn’t get done until we do it,” he said.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.