BY MIKE HELENTHAL
If you look close enough, Frank Williams is right there in the dictionary definition of “teacher.”
According to an entry in Webster’s, a teacher doesn’t have to stand in front of a classroom to teach: He simply has to “instruct by precept, example or experience.”
Using that definition, Williams, who steps down today as head custodian at Danville High School after 35 years on the job, is a walking teaching moment.
“I’ve always worked with kids,” he said of his tenure, which included a 10-year stint prior to DHS as custodian at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. “I guess that’s been my calling.”
He said he’s forged relationships with hundreds of students during the years and he always delivers a simple message: “I always tell them: Don’t run with the wrong people. I don’t call kids bad, they just make some bad decisions sometimes.”
He knows of what he speaks.
Williams, who was born and raised in Danville, said he ran with a rough crowd when he was growing up — and that many of those old friends who stayed on the path had been killed or were in jail.
He went to work for General Motors, but after experiencing several rounds of layoffs, the St. Paul’s job opened up.
“It didn’t pay much, but at least it was regular pay every two weeks,” he said.
While most everyone in the district has come into contact with Williams, the school custodian made the extra effort during the years to enlist the help of students on various “special” projects, such as school performances.
“I started picking kids, but they had to have good grades,” he said, noting the janitorial crew also is in charge of all school sporting and performance events. “They loved it because I would get them out of class to help with different things.”
In addition to teaching students the process at hand, Williams said he went out of his way to reinforce respect as an important part of performing any task.
He can reel off a long list of “his” kids who went on to high-profile careers and said those graduates commonly pull him aside when they return for a visit.
“Lots of kids come back with their kids,” he said. “Even the kids on the football team, I knew their dads when they played ball here.”
Williams’ interview is interrupted for the moment as a postal worker stops by to drop off mail and say goodbye to the custodian — who claims a 17-year run without a sick day at one point.
“I had her when she was in school here,” he says after the mail carrier exits.
One of Williams’ favorite duties during the years has been helping run the sound and light systems in the auditorium. Both were replaced at the end of the school year this year.
He said the kids have actually helped him adjust to the new computer-based system and that he will volunteer his services after his retirement to help run it.
Williams said he will miss forging relationships with students and staffs, but will use his newfound freedom to travel and spend more time with his wife of six years, Linda.
Linda can attest to the long hours the custodian’s job entails.
“He eats, drinks and breathes the school,” she said. “I’m second to the school, but I knew my place when I married him. That auditorium is his baby. I think the job has contributed to his good health.”
“She gets hot sometimes, but that’s part of the deal,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of all the activities.”
Linda said Williams is just as organized and dedicated at home — so much so that she doesn’t even have a “honey-do” list of projects to complete when he comes home for good.
“I don’t ever have to ask him to do anything,” she said. “The only time he’s not doing anything is when he’s sitting down, but he’s probably thinking about it.”
Williams said he’s thought about retiring for sometime — spending more time with the family or sitting on the bank fishing.
“I haven’t been sleeping well in the last week because I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “I’ve been feeling it. I’ll miss the administration, the principals and the staff; all the years I’ve been here I’ve never met anybody I didn’t like.
“I’ll miss the kids the most.”