Harry’s whistlin’: Lessons in hard work, fun times

December 2019 Posted in Other

I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years. I was a dishwasher at the Woolworths luncheonette in the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania shopping mall; a bass player in several rock bands; a newspaper reporter and editor; a stock broker and financial planner… I’m sure I left out a few.

But one of the best jobs I ever had was as a janitor at an elementary school.

It wasn’t the money. I received a whopping $1.60 an hour. That was the minimum wage, and it was hard work. One summer I cleaned an entire school from top to bottom by myself. I changed every light bulb, scrubbed and waxed all of the floors, washed every desk and window – I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

What made it a great a job is I could measure my progress every day. I averaged a room a day. When I got a wing done I would move all of the furniture out of the classrooms and do the floors. Then I’d move the furniture back and do the hallway and move on to the next wing. Day by day, room by room, I learned that hard work and perseverance pays off. And I had no one else to blame if I wasn’t staying on track.

I also got to work around plumbers, carpenters and other professionals who were doing projects around the school. They taught me that you can work hard and have fun at the same time.

That’s a lesson I think about every day. So many people seem to think of work as akin to getting teeth pulled. I don’t. Camaraderie, jokes, playful banter – it’s all a way to enjoy what you’re doing while you do it.

When school was in session, the teachers and principal would ignore me. That was fine, because I had plenty to keep me busy. But when something broke or a light went out I was the most important guy on the planet. That was pretty cool for someone still in his teens.

During the school year I worked with a crew. My boss was the best I ever had. Harry was in his 50s. He was about 5-foot-5 and had streaks of gray in his black hair. He worked hard and never once complained. His job was important to him, and so was his family. He was a volunteer firefighter and a member of the local I.A.C. – the Italian American Club – in his little town on the Main Line west of Philadelphia.

Harry was solid. If he said he was going to do something, you could count on it. And it was obvious he enjoyed his work. He took pride in taking an elementary school that was built in the 1920s and putting a shine on it. The hardwood floors glowed, the desks and chairs were all in place and teachers could count on Harry to make sure everything was in working order.

But there was one thing Harry always did: whistle. No particular tune. Just a meandering, sweet melody.

One time I asked him about it.

“It’s my early warning system,” he said. “If kids hear my whistle, they know I’m around. If they’re messing up the building they’ll stop before I get there.”

A half century later, I always whistle, too, whether I’m at home or at work. I do it just so people know I’m heading their way.

Just like Harry.

Carl Sampson is a freelance writer and editor.
He lives in Stayton.

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