Originally published October 16, 2018
Three years ago, freshman Nicolas Valente asked high school custodian Clarence Lee Newcomb for help to find a ring he had lost after taking it off during lunch.
As he cleaned the cafeteria, Newcomb kept an eye out for the silver band, which has special meaning to Nicolas. On the floor at the edge of the wall, he noticed a glint and picked up the treasured ring. The next day he returned it to Nicolas and a unique friendship was born.
“Ever since, that young man has spoken to me every day, whether it just be ‘Good morning’ or ‘How’s your day going?’ He sits with his friends at lunch and he does not leave a mess. If there is a mess, he takes it upon himself to clean it up,” said Newcomb, who retired May 31 after three years, but still talks about his job in present tense.
In getting to know the man with the mop, long goatee and ever-present smile, Nicolas’ respect grew and proved contagious. “(Nicolas) kind of opened the door to everything else, especially with the students,” Newcomb said. “He opened that door to allow me to get to know the student body.”
Those students voted to elect Newcomb as their grand marshal for the Oct. 12 Homecoming. In learning he was elected, Newcomb quickly shifted his thoughts to Nicolas and asked him to ride next to him in the Homecoming Parade, because “students deserve recognition too,” he said, and the young man whose lost band led to a new bond could represent them all.
‘You Feel Good Around the Guy’
Newcomb, a veteran of the U.S. Army who grew up in Virginia, worked in factories for 32 years before becoming a custodian. His two daughters graduated from Byron Center High School and he has three grandchildren at Brown Elementary. During his time as custodian, Newcomb was in charge of the cafeteria and Van Singel Fine Arts Center and helped set up for basketball games or other activities.
Nicolas said he realized Newcomb put every ounce of his energy into being a custodian, a position many people overlook or take for granted. “He always had a smile on his face; he enjoyed his job; he never complained. He was always the first to help. You feel good around the guy. He makes you feel like you’re worth everything to him. He would put you before himself.”
As he got to know more and more students, Newcomb said he found family within the walls of the high school.
“The students helped me get to where I am now,” he said. Along with serving as grand marshal, Newcomb received the Custodian of the Year Award from Grand Rapids Building Services last year and was recognized by the district’s Board of Education.
“I just feel like I’ve made a mark in the world,” he said. “These people recognize me by face, and not as ‘oh, that’s the custodian.’”
Though Newcomb’s role at the school is now as a visitor who stops in occasionally to say hello – he often can’t resist taking out a bag of trash – he still feels closely connected to students and staff.
“I’m not only here to clean, I’m here to help my family. That’s the way I look at it. Everyone here is a part of my family and I want to help each and everyone of them,” he said. “If I come in in the morning and I see a student or teacher looking down, I will say something off the wall to make them laugh. If I can put a smile on their face, I’ve done my day’s work.”
Newcomb made an impact schoolwide as reliable, fantastic support, said Sara Pass, Van Singel Fine Arts Center director. “Clarence would always embody a shining spirit of optimism.”
He also worked to meet others’ needs. Assistant Principal Jeff Dykhouse said Newcomb once overheard a student talking to a teacher about wanting to start a chess club, but not having any chess boards. The next morning, Newcomb donated two complete chess sets.
“What was most obvious about Clarence was his love of Byron Center,” Dykhouse said. “This building was not just his job site or a place to collect a paycheck from. This was his building; that was his cafeteria; these were his students and it showed through in his work every day.”
A ‘Level 5’ Leader
Students got to know Newcomb as an affable, kind man, who, when asked, offers wisdom and sage advice developed from years of hard work and life experiences. He treats teenagers as young adults, rather than children, they said.
Newcomb became a frequent talking point in Student Life and Leadership class, said senior Claire VanDeusen, who ranks the custodian, in leadership lingo, as a “Level 5 Leader,” a status she described as almost unreachable.
“Everything I have done in my high school career has Clarence involved in some way, shape or form,” Claire said. “He is definitely one of the major backbones of the school and it was very emotional to see him go last year.”
Truth be told, custodians are the ever-present, usually silent forces in the school. Newcomb noticed things, not just items discarded on the floor or overflowing trash cans, but students, like Claire, who would sit alone diligently working on homework during lunch, or Nicolas, who led his peers by example. He noticed those those who excel, struggle or hover somewhere in the middle.
“Custodians know more than the staff. They see more than the staff sees,” Newcomb said. “We are like a fly on the wall. We know things that nobody else knows. We see things no one else will ever see.”
And once in awhile, someone sees them too.
“There’s no word to describe it… I was in tears,” Newcomb said. “It meant so much that kids would choose a guy like me – a custodian – to be their grand marshal.”