Beloved school janitor on the mend

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 13, 2013

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