Carl Wilkerson, long a fixture at China Grove Elementary, recovering from strokes

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 12:41 a.m.
Carl Wilkerson was the longtime janitor at China Grove Elementary School. He is recovering from two strokes and has heard from many former students during his recovery.
Carl Wilkerson was the longtime janitor at China Grove Elementary School. He is recovering from two strokes and has heard from many former students during his recovery.

CHINA GROVE — Folks might find it unusual that the person most loved at an elementary school is the janitor.

Fact Box

Carl Wilkerson was such a special part of my (and others) elementary school years at CGE. He ALWAYS had a smile on his face and made every child feel special. Even as a child, I can always remember him saying “Yes, ma’am”, “Yes, sir” to the teachers and other staff at CGE. I remember thinking that he was always so kind. There was just no way you could not love him. After leaving CGE, I would love running into him at Johnson’s Superette or somewhere in town. He always remembered me and would always give me a big hug. We need more Carl Wilkersons in the world, for sure.

Carole Yost Parrott

Carl had an amazing memory. I spent most of my teaching and principal days in the East area. However, I remember visiting China Grove a few years back and seeing Carl. He remembered me. He really was a special person. One of my best memories is going and getting ice cream and milk from him. He would pack each class’ milk or ice cream in one of those old metal crates. He was a small man and always made sure to get eye level with you. This means a lot to students. They love for you to get down at eye level with them.

Timothy Smith

I will never forget what Carl did for me while I was attending China Grove Elementary School. Everyone remembers the morning milk breaks and the afternoon ice cream breaks. Well, my family had enough money to pay all our bills, but no extra for break times. I would volunteer to go get the ice cream for our class even though I knew there was not going to be any in that box for me. And I truly didn’t mind. I just enjoyed seeing everyone else who was picking up the boxes. Carl would always smile and talk to me. One day during ice-cream break, there was a knock on our classroom door. The teacher opened the door and there stood Carl with a Fudgsicle that he had bought just for me! I can tell you that to this day, I have never had ice cream that tasted that good.

Tonya Cooper Shepherd

My dad (former Police Chief Richard Overcash) thought a lot of Carl, and in my book, that says a lot. Carl always had a smile and greeted everyone. He did such a good job and was proud of his work. Kids all over China Grove love him, myself included. He sure looked after my kids all the years they were there. He always had a smile and said “Hello” and remembered your name forever.

Linda Overcash Hampton

I remember Carl being a friend to everyone. There was never a day that went by that he didn’t have a smile for each one of us. He knew all of us by name and even some of our family. I think he truly loved us as if we were his children. To this day, any time I see him, he always has that same smile and asks about my family. Every school needs a Carl. I’m sure he impacted our lives more than he or we will ever realize.

Julie Deal

But if you went to China Grove Elementary School from the 1960s to the 1990s, it’s not one bit unusual. Carl Wilkerson was our janitor, and we loved him as much as he loved us.

Carl, now 78, is recovering from two strokes, and many former students have visited to wish him well. So many, in fact, that his doctor is limiting visitors now, but Carl says it would be fine to send him a card.

Carl looks just about the same as he did when he roamed the halls of China Grove Elementary, delivering milk and ice cream, cleaning up after students, comforting a child who was sick or upset. He still has the same big smile, the same kind brown eyes.

“My memory’s coming back,” he says, sitting on his bed at a local nursing home. “I’m doing better.”

Over four decades, Carl worked with three principals: John Rudisill, Dr. Alan King and Dr. Bob Bloodworth. Some were easier to work with than others, he concedes, but all three were good men.

He and Dr. King had a good relationship, he says. One year on April Fools’ Day, they even switched jobs, briefly, with Carl doing the morning announcements and Dr. King sweeping the floors.

“I was so nervous,” Carl admits. “I didn’t think I could do it, but Dr. King said, ‘You did fine.’ ”

At one time, the school had more than 800 students.

“It was too many children,” he says. “It took every piece of furniture we had.”

He remembers helping secretary Mary Daugherty deliver milk in the morning and ice cream in the afternoons.

More than once, he probably bought ice cream for a student who couldn’t afford it. Tonya Cooper Shepherd said the ice cream Carl bought her was the best she’s ever tasted.

“I had a little bit of change in my pocket,” Carl says. “I said, ‘I’ll buy her some ice cream.’ ”

But most of the time, students turned to Carl because they knew he was someone they could talk to.

“I was just a skinny little black man,” he says. “They just wanted to talk to me about things, everyday problems. I told them to pray over it and take it to the good Lord.”

Before he walked to school every morning to go to work, Carl prayed that he would have a good day.

He never answered anyone without a yes ma’am or no ma’am, yes sir or no sir.

“I was raised that way,” he says simply. The son of Willie and Irene Wilkerson, he’s the only one of three brothers still living.

After working at school all day, Carl cleaned at night at businesses around town, including China Grove Drug Co. and First Union National Bank. He also worked some 20 years at the laundromat.

He never married.

“I liked this girl, but she didn’t want to get married,” Carl says. “I really loved her, but I worked all the time. We were poor.”

Still, he says, “God has been good to me.”

Working around so many children over the years, Carl rarely got sick. “I just loved y’all so much. If there was something that got broke that I couldn’t fix, that’s the only thing that bothered me. Most of the time, I talked to the children like they were my children. God helped me to talk to them.”

Carl finally retired after 32 years of service with the school system.

“I got real sick,” said Carl, who had trouble with his lungs. “Something told me, Carl, it’s time for you to quit.”

When Carl is released from the nursing home, he plans to stay with a cousin for awhile, and hopes to eventually have a place of his own. The apartment he rented across from the laundromat is being sold. The little house he lived in behind China Grove Middle School is long gone, demolished to make room for expanded athletic fields.

Carl gets a small retirement check, which he says is better than nothing at all. “I never did make much money, but I love people. Except for a sore right knee, he says he feels wonderful. Doctors are working to keep his blood pressure under control, and therefore must limit his visitors.

“I feel like I have a second chance on life,” he says. “It’s a blessing.”

You may send Carl a card at the following address: Salisbury Gardens, 2201 Statesville Blvd., Salisbury, NC 28144.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury. She went to China Grove Elementary School from first through sixth grade.

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