COLUMBUS — Columbus Middle School is quiet this summer except for the jingle of Head Custodian Paul Nieuwenhuis’ keys as he moves through the building.
His work remains hidden from most, but it caught the attention of the Nebraska State Custodial Association, which named him 2012 Custodian of the Year.
Rather than offering special mantras or shortcuts to quality work, Nieuwenhuis said the best approach to doing a good job is to simply do it.
“You just got to take one step at a time, and if you have several jobs to be done at once, you have to prioritize how important they are and get them done,” he said.
“He sets an example for all CPS (Columbus Public Schools) certified staff,” said Director of Building and Grounds Tom Wunderlich during last month’s board of education meeting. Wunderlich nominated Nieuwenhuis for the award.
Nieuwenhuis received the award at the Nebraska State Custodial Association’s annual banquet last month in Grand Island.
Beginning in fall 1994 as Columbus Middle School’s night supervisor, Nieuwenhuis worked evenings until the head custodian position opened three years later.
Through Nieuwenhuis’ nearly two decades of service, he’s seen a number of trends and fashions and, despite their differences, he says the quality of students throughout the years has remained the same.
“Kids really haven’t changed much over the years,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Basically, they’re good-hearted people.”
Although his responsibilities do not include the students directly, he says the kids at CMS give him purpose in more than a symbolic way.
“You always ask yourself, ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing this job?’,” he said.
“One day I’m walking down a hallway and a kid’s walking down the hallway choking on a cough drop begging for help. I did the Heimlich, and then I sent him down to the nurse because I was afraid I’d hurt him, but we got the cough drop out.
“That’s probably the most rewarding moment.”
Before his school job, Nieuwenhuis wore a number of different hats from cook for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a 17-year-old to his job at the Hinky Dinky grocery store he received upon returning from two tours in Vietnam.
Nieuwenhuis said his years with the school have been gratifying because of the closeness shared by the staff.
“I guess I’ve really enjoyed all the years I’ve been here. All the staff’s been really good to me. It’s like one large family,” he said. “You’ll see kids in the store. A lot of the students going here now will holler at you.”
The greetings continue long after they’ve left middle school, and Nieuwenhuis can usually recall the names.
To be eligible for Custodian of the Year, candidates must be current members of the Nebraska State Custodial Association, have attended a training workshop within the last three years and submit an application with a professional letter of recommendation.
The Custodian of the Year award comes with a $500 scholarship, which Principal Doug Kluth will award to a Columbus Middle School student this coming school year.