Custodians at Black Hills State University enjoy visible role


Ellen Sheehy

Gary Callies shares his experience working at BHSU.

SPEARFISH, S.D.–Gary Callies and Cam McLean love their jobs. They are custodians at Black Hills State University; Callies is a custodial supervisor and McLean a facility worker. In other words, they clean the school. While they certainly don’t mind the physical work they do, what really keeps them going is the interactions that they have with students and faculty.  

Some people might be surprised by this, because custodians and janitors are often thought of as house elves who are seldom seen and rarely heard. That’s certainly something McLean was told before; as a construction worker in Minnesota, he was trained to “really not be noticeable in any way.” It should look like people’s messes magically disappear overnight. However, Lexie Bendigo, a sophomore at BHSU double majoring in Psychology and Human Services, says it is important for custodians to not be ignored. “I think any knowledge about what they do is really important,” she stressed. “I mean look at the size of the university, I mean, they do so much, and they keep so much clean.”  

When I walked up to Callies and McClean last Thursday, they both smiled at me. “Are you Gary and Cam?” I asked, instantly aware that they are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.  

“Yes. You must be Ellen?” Callies shook my hand, and we sat down at a nearby table.  

Both men were at least halfway through their workday when I met with them, since McLean starts at 4 a.m. and Callies at 6 a.m. There are different groups of custodians who take care of different parts of the school; for example, the dorms, the library (where McLean now works), or the lecture rooms, busy hallways, and restrooms of Jonas hall (Callies’ specialty)–and their jobs vary depending on what they are cleaning. But most custodians begin by cleaning bathrooms, and then move on to the classrooms. “We have to go like heck for a couple hours strong to get that done,” Callies said, because those areas must be finished by 8 o’clock– the time professors come into their offices and classes begin. After completing these highest priority areas, they move on to the hallways, windows, high-contact areas (like doorknobs), and whatever else needs to be cleaned that day (like the football stadium or the theater).  

Callies and McLean both agree that the hardest part of their jobs is cleaning the bathrooms, especially the men’s. Apparently, the male gender has poor aim, leaving the toilets in a disgusting state. “It’s amazing,” McLean said, shaking his head.  

They both agreed on their favorite part of the job: the people. When they are out in the hallways students and staff often stop to say thank you or have a short conversation. “That’s really what keeps me going,” Callies said. And credit for this ability to interact “goes to our boss,” Callies said, “Who in my view–you can quote me on this–is the world’s greatest boss.” Debbie Liddick, Assistant Director of Facilities and Sustainability, encourages the custodians to “be out there and engage with everybody,” he said. For example, after Callies and his colleagues get their main work done on the first day of classes, she sends them out into the hallways to help point students where to go.  

If more proof is needed that Callies enjoys this aspect of his job, he was up for retirement seven months ago, but is “not even thinking of retirement anymore . . . As long as you love it, why quit?” Students do a good job of expressing their appreciation for the work that the custodians do, and it helps them. “I’ve been thanked more here than any job I’ve ever worked at,” Callies said. And McLean added, “I know we’re supposed to be in the background, but it’s nice just to be acknowledged. Just a simple hi, thank you, those kinds of things are really uplifting.” And it’s not just the students who are fun to be around; McLean, who came to BHSU in June, emphasized that his coworkers are all amazing people. “I haven’t met anybody that I wouldn’t bring home for dinner since I got here.”