Well before I ever knew him – must have been 40 years ago – my father-in-law, Dick Cassidy, got fired from his job as a salesman for Corn Products Corporation. CPC was the family’s shorthand. He’d worked for CPC for decades, selling corn to manufacturers across the upper Midwest. He sold trainloads of corn, corn syrup – what else can you make from corn? He sold to big industrial bakeries and even bigger brewers.

Dick Cassidy was a company man. Moved his family over and again from Aberdeen, S.D., to Sioux City, Iowa, to Morehead, Minn., to Sioux Falls, S.D., (twice, I think) and finally to Minneapolis. The company called and Dick and Babe packed.

And then the company called and packed Dick Cassidy in. Younger men, lower payroll – all the usual reasons.

Then as now, when you’re in your 50s, have a daughter headed to college, and a mortgage on a big split-level in Edina, being out of work is devastating to the ego and the checkbook. All the color bleeds out of future plans and waking up is just a reminder that you have no place to go.

To bring in a check – my wife, Mary, remembers – Dick Cassidy took a night watchman’s job in a Toro lawnmower plant. Those months have been boiled down in Mary’s memory to a single thing: On Monday, when he packed his lunch for work he started with a fresh brown lunch bag. And every day he brought it home neatly folded, repacking it each day that week, until on Friday he discarded it.

These family stories are reduced over time to just the essentials, so I don’t know why Dick Cassidy left Toro. But again he was out of work and this time he looked out his back gate which fronted on the parking lot of Our Lady of Grace Catholic School, where he was a member of the parish.

There was a custodian’s job open. He took that job, which might have seemed more demeaning than walking the factory floor at Toro, in any case a far piece from the natty suits and stylish cars of his sales career. But Mary would tell you that becoming a school janitor saved her dad’s life, that wearing the shirt with the Mr. Dick name patch sewn on, that getting to know those kids (which ones always got detention, which ones did all right), knowing them by name and being known by name, made those last years of work a time of renewal for her dad.

Dick Cassidy, who amazingly to me has been dead for 24 years, came to mind this week because over at Oak Park and River Forest High the school board is once more talking about outsourcing the jobs of its 28 custodians. They want to save money, of course, and given our tax bills it’s hard to argue with that impulse.

But I also know the particular role a good and long-serving school janitor plays in a school. A definite grown-up. But not a teacher. A set of eyes ready to be laid on a squirrelly kid at the right moment. A problem solver. The keeper of the keys to every lock.

I remember the names of the janitors back at Ascension – Mr. Nick and Mr. Janney – better than I recall some teachers. You had a problem, and a vomiting next row neighbor is a problem, and you wanted Mr. Nick before you wanted the nun. Bring on the sawdust.

These days you probably don’t want a janitor pulling your kid’s loose tooth as Mary recalls her dad doing at Our Lady of Grace. But schools are better places with people like Dick Cassidy around.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...