In a world where too many people just “talk the talk,” Fred Cox “walks the walk”– a fast stride around the cafeteria, through entryways, down hallways, in classrooms and outside on snowy sidewalks.
While keeping his speedy stride, Cox cleans: picking up trash, wiping tables and shoveling foot-deep snow on winter days. The custodian, called Fred by students and teachers alike at Duncan Lake Middle School, spends school days from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. taking care of the large building that enrolls about 500 sixth- through eighth-graders.
Cox’s quickness shows during the three lunch periods when students enter the cafeteria en masse, complete with the quirks and antics of middle schoolers. On a recent morning, one student needs Cox to retrieve 50 cents from the trashcan; Cox uses a broom handle to fix a handful of drop ceiling tiles knocked off center by wayward balls; a group of boys starts a dice game to win pencils provided by Cox; and several more ask his help with one thing or another.
All in a Day’s Work
“How was your snow day, Fred?” seventh-grader Jack Simons asks during lunch on a Tuesday following a Monday when schools closed because of snow.
“It was fantastic,” Cox answers without a hint of sarcasm. “I spent four hours clearing snow from all around the school exits.”
Cox handles the rambunctious crew with ease, moving seamlessly from sixth- to seventh- to eighth-grade lunch periods, passing out high fives and fist bumps, engaging in conversations and sharing laughs. And his way of connecting with them has caught the attention of staff and students.
“The kids are great,” said Cox, who started this year as full-time custodian after working part-time at Caledonia High School since 2007. “I’m blessed every day, because if you can’t come here and smile, something is definitely wrong.”
Sixth-grader Ethan Dyksterhouse grabs a rag and helps Cox wipe tables after lunch. “Most kids get to know him,” Ethan said. “He’s always positive, giving high fives and having fun.”
Cox worked as an assistant manager at Steelcase for 15 years and then at other companies, doing building and grounds and custodial work. His daughter, Samantha Cox, and late stepson, David Marlink, graduated from Caledonia High School.
At school he’s known for his ability to do custodial and maintenance work, for which Principal Ryan Graham said he’s very grateful.
“Kids and staff see his hard work ethic. When he sets out to do things, he’s on it,” Graham said. “He works his tail off.”
But more than that, it’s the way students gravitate to Cox that people notice. “Kids who aren’t the jocks or ‘all A’ kids, they respond to Fred,” Graham said.
Cox fixes what’s broken, helps students open jammed lockers, hangs banners, shovels and cleans. He said he works hard to meet the needs of staff and students with “whatever they need me to do.”
His manner is humble. “I try to do everything, jack-of-all-trades master of none…” he said with a laugh.
Food service worker Lori Hoholik said she sees how students light up around Cox.
“I love watching Fred and the way he interacts with kids,” she said. “He’s so good with them. He talks to them. If he sees a kid sitting alone, he goes up to them. He’s always upbeat.”
Students note the small ways Cox helps brighten their day. “He gave me M&Ms,” said seventh-grader Kaitlynn Robotham. “I spilled my whole lunch and Fred cleaned it up.”
Added seventh-grader Reagan Weiss: “Once I lost my lunchbox and all the food in it. He bought me a lunch, found my lunchbox and washed it out.”
“He always waves at us in the hallway,” said seventh-grader Lindy Bujak.
Cox treats students with respect and they seem to like that. He calls them “sir” or “young lady.” “He’s very polite,” said seventh-grader Colin Marckwardt. “He talks openly to kids and that’s really cool about him.”
Graham said the respect is mutual. Students make sure they don’t take advantage of their beloved custodian who works so hard.
“They remind each other, ‘Don’t make a mess for Fred!’ ” Graham said.