Free Press Archives
COURTHOUSE JANITOR MADE ME PROUD
Something I read long ago shaped my attitude about management. Two men
were being interviewed for a big promotion and the head man asked each
to list everyone they knew on a first name basis who worked for the
company. One man only listed close co-workers and the other included
the janitor and elevator operator. He got the job. The head man said,
"Unless everyone in the organization is important to you, you do not
need to be in management."
John Henry Gideon was the courthouse janitor when I was appointed county
manager. He has been gone since 2005 but I still celebrate his birthday
every year and remember him with admiration and joy that I got to enjoy
I often worked late and when he came by to empty my wastebasket, we
would sometimes chat. He was a jovial man and I looked forward to seeing
One day he said, "Mr. Roberts, I have six children and it's so hard to
feed them on a janitor's pay. Would you give me a better job?"
I said, "What can you do?" and he said, "I can drive a truck." So I set
him up an appointment with the highway superintendent to see if he
qualified and he soon went to work as a truck driver. Later the
superintendent told me he was doing a good job and was well liked by the
One morning when I came to work, John Henry was waiting for me. I asked
what he wanted and he said, "I am still having a hard time taking care
of my six children. Can you move me up to equipment operator? I've been
getting the men to show me how to operate all the road equipment." I
asked the highway superintendent to give him a shot at a job and he did.
Later he told me John Henry was doing a great job and mentioned all the
equipment he had learned to operate.
Another morning I came to work and there sat John Henry. I said, "John
Henry, there's only one more job available for you and that's mine and
you can't have it!" We both laughed and I told him, "The superintendent
tells me you are one of his best men so when you want a chance at a
better job, just tell him. He likes you."
Much later a man who once worked for a road contractor walked up to me
at a civic club meeting and said, "I'll be honest with you. When I heard
the county was going to start paving roads, I was afraid you might not
realize how difficult it is to build first-class roads. But right now,
the county is building some of the finest roads I have ever seen."
I promised to pass his comment on to the highway superintendent and I
did. The superintendent said, "That janitor you sent out here is as
responsible as anyone. The main job on a paving crew is the screw man
who eyeballs the terrain and lays down just the right amount of asphalt.
It's as much an art as a science and John Henry is the best I've ever
seen and I've been building roads all my life."
I was so proud I called John Henry. By this time I had moved from county
manager to county executive. I said, "John Henry, if you ever decide to
run for county executive give me a little advance notice so I can just
go ahead and leave town. You might be the first black county executive.
" He broke into one of his hearty laughs and said, "Boss, it's a lot
easier for me to turn a screw than to push a pencil. You are safe. But I
still have those six children and if you can ever find me a better job,
I'd appreciate it."
I miss him. He never quit pushing the "up" button on the elevator of