A Quiet Leader
Dave Arnold can write columns, publish poems, and construct his own musket, but he’s most proud of his work as an ESP.
By John Rosales
Dave Arnold makes his own bullets for his handmade musket. "I have bullet molds," he explains. "I melt lead from old pipes and pour it into the mold."
Dave Arnold may be the most famous custodian in the United States whom most people have never heard of. This man for all seasons is a published poet (one of his poems, “Just a Janitor,” placed fifth in a contest sponsored by Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum), accomplished carpenter, outdoorsman, contract negotiator, and poster designer. He also pens a biweekly column called “Dave’s View” for nea.org.
“I was sitting in a conference meeting a while back and a guy got up and quoted something I had written in one of my editorials,” says Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) who has had more than 115 opinion pieces published on NEA’s Web site. “The guy mentioned my name, but didn’t know I was sitting right there. It was pretty funny.”
Arnold says he never thought he’d be writing for a national audience. But when the education support professional (ESP) was invited to write for NEA in 2002, he jumped at the opportunity. “It was my hope to educate, inform, and maybe entertain,” he says. “I try to convey to readers the importance of some of the issues that affect their jobs and lives.”
Arnold also touches the lives of the 236 children who attend Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois, where he is the head custodian.
“The kids love him at school because he reads to them, works on their science projects, and shares his knowledge of different subjects,” says Marcus Albrecht, a UniServ director for IEA and acquaintance of Arnold for 10 years. “He is extremely well-rounded.”
Albrecht recalls the day when Arnold showed him a Civil War-style musket he had made by hand from a piece of wood, some pipe, and a trigger mechanism. “It fires, so I mentioned the rifle to some Civil War enthusiasts,” Albrecht says. “They re-enact battles and wanted to see this handmade musket.”
When not hunting squirrel with his musket, Arnold uses a bow and arrow to track elk and deer. The avid outdoorsman learned about hunting, fishing, carpentry, and labor unions from his father, a union carpenter for 45 years.
“My dad used to say that with a union you bargain for what you get, and without one you beg for what you get,” he says. Arnold worked as a carpenter for 11 years after graduating from Okaw Valley Vocational Building and Trades School in 1970.
In 1982 the married father of two now-grown daughters started work as a custodian at the elementary school—the same one he attended as a child. Eight years later, he was promoted to head custodian. In 1993, Arnold organized the Brownstown Education Support Professional Association. He served as president and head negotiator for almost six years.
“Two board members on the school’s negotiation team are my neighbors,” Arnold says. “We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but we have to get along since we live close to one another.”
These days, Arnold can be found appearing on local radio and television talk shows and speaking to civic groups on ESP issues, as well as teaching Sunday school. Each year, he designs a poster for the IEA to commemorate American Education Week. One poster, which was distributed statewide, featured a black-and-white photograph of a forlorn-looking man sitting alone in a jail cell. The caption reads: “Some Places Don’t Require a Good Education.” This dedicated ESP does his part to ensure that his students don’t meet such a fate. As he writes in his poem, “Just a Janitor”:
I play just a small part in this education plan
When trying to help a child become a successful woman or man
I hope I might live to see the day
That a doctor, lawyer or business person will say
“Thank you for helping me down life’s road way back when.”
Believing that makes me thank God for the privilege to face another day again.
Photo by Eric Williams