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The Quiet Leader

Meet the Man Behind the ESP Poems and Editorials

When not hunting with his homemade 18th century musket, Dave Arnold uses a bow and arrow. He also enjoys fishing from his homemade canoe. The school custodian writes editorials for NEA, publishes poetry, and is a former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year.

Dave Arnold may be the most famous custodian in the United States who most people have not heard of.

Education Support Professionals (ESP) who know his name, probably don’t know his face. They can quote from one of his poems or editorials, but have no idea that he sports a salt-n-pepper beard, is partial to wearing baseball caps with aviator glasses, and is fit as a fiddle for a man in his 50s. 

“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,” said Arnold, who works as head custodian at the elementary school of the Brownstown Community School District in Southern Illinois. “The guy mentioned my name, but didn’t know I was sitting right there. It was pretty funny.”

Man For All Seasons

Arnold is a published poet, accomplished carpenter, outdoorsman, contract negotiator, poster designer, and the 2003 ESP of the Year of the Illinois Education Association (IEA).

He is also an editorial writer for His bi-weekly column, “Dave’s View,” appears on the ESP home page and under "NEA Voices" on the the Members and Educators page of the site.

“It’s been a challenge to come up with an interesting topic every time,” said Arnold, who has published more than 100 editorials for NEA. “If I can stir emotion, ideas and thinking about an issue, then I’ve accomplished something.”

People across the world who may not know Arnold’s writing, may know his face and name. He was featured a few years ago in a photograph picked up by the Associated Press news wire service. The internationally syndicated photo shows Arnold wielding a broom while wearing a Dr. Seuss hat and high-fiving a young student in a school hall.

“That photograph was sent to every newspaper in the country, Canada, and other parts of the world,” said Marcus Albrecht, UniServ Director for IEA, which represents 103,000 teachers and 22,000 ESPs. “The kids love him (Arnold) at school because he reads to them, works on their science projects, and shares his knowledge of different subjects. He’s extremely well-rounded.”


I was having dinner at his house one day, recalls Albrecht, and Dave brought out a Civil War 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 said. “They re-enact battles and wanted to see this handmade musket.”

So, where does Arnold get round, lead balls needed for an 18th century muzzle-loading musket?

“I have bullet molds,” says Arnold, an avid hunter of squirrel, deer, quail and other prey found in nearby woods. “I melt lead from pipes that plumbers throw away and pour it into the mold. Works pretty well.”   

When not hunting with his musket, Arnold uses a bow and arrow, sometimes traveling down a local river in the canoe he assembled from plywood, nails and glue.

“He took my children fishing in that handmade canoe,” said Albrecht. “They loved it.”

Arnold learned about hunting, fishing, carpentry and labor unions from his father, a union carpenter for 45 years.

“My dad use to say that with a union you bargain for what you get, and without one you beg for what you get,” said Arnold, who worked as a carpenter for 11 years after graduating from Okaw Valley Vocational Building and Trades School in 1970. 

Labor Leader

After a short stint as a sales clerk at K-Mart, he started work as a custodian in the summer of 1982. After about eight years, he was promoted to head custodian of the elementary school.

In 1993, Arnold organized the Brownstown Education Support Professional Association. After recruiting members for the 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 said. “We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but we have to get along since we live close to one another.”

Another board member grew up 10 miles from Brownstown in St. Elmo with Arnold’s wife, Nancy.

“Nancy use to baby sit for him,” said Arnold, who has been married for 30 years. “He’s about 20 years younger than us.”

It is not unusual for close and historical ties to exist between Brownstown families, friends and neighbors. The town’s population is only 860, of which 500 are still in school.

Family Man

Arnold works at the same elementary school that he attended as a boy, located just two blocks from his current residence. Mrs. Arnold is a cook, and an alum of St. Elmo High School. The couple’s two daughters attended Brownstown schools.

The oldest, Tina, now works as a bookkeeper for Lake Land Community College in Brownstown, and Cindy is a pre-school teacher.

The close-knit nature of life in Brownstown prompted Arnold and other ESP to establish an annual scholarship fund for students. Arnold also promotes Teacher Appreciation Day and Secretaries Day by handing out gifts to school staff and students.

“We (ESP) have a good working relationship with our teachers,” he said. “When teachers need something extra, we’ll help them out as much as we can.”

Arnold says there is a good reason for the healthy teacher-ESP relations that exist in Brownstown and other school districts.

“Where there’s an Association of teachers and of ESP, there’s usually a good working relationship too,” said Arnold, who has served on numerous Region 5 and IEA state committees. “At our school, we’re pretty close.” 

Poet at Large

When the spirit moves him, Arnold commemorates the work performed by ESP with poems that praise their work, as well as that exhibit his humor and insight.

For example, in “Dr. Cool,” he writes about school nurses:

             If you think their job would be nice
             And all they do is apply some ice
             Then I will warn you to think twice
             As for there is the matter of Head Lice

In "Angels With an Apron," he writes:

             Now if you think you have troubles consider this
             A school’s kitchen isn’t an area of wondrous bliss
             The food the state sends the school somewhat lacks in appeal
             But out of this the cook creates a masterpiece, called a meal

In the highly personal “Just a Janitor,” Arnold states:

             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.”

The poem about janitors, published in 1997, placed fifth in a poetry contest sponsored by Sparrowgrass. It was published in their book of contest winners.

Arnold has published a booklet of 24 poems, along with numerous newspaper articles and editorials about education and community issues. He appears on radio and television talk shows, speaks to civic groups on ESP issues, and teaches Sunday school.

Design Artist

Every year, Arnold designs a poster for the IEA to commemorate American Education Week. His 1996 poster featured a black-and-white photograph of a man sitting alone in a jail cell. Through prison bars we see him staring at the floor with a look of disbelief. The caption reads: “Some Places Don’t Require a Good Education.”

The poster was distributed statewide and featured in “NEA Today,” the national magazine of the NEA.

“Every year it’s a different poster,” said Albrecht, who has known Arnold for 10 years. “No one asks him to do it, he just puts something together for us.”

In 2001, Arnold was named NEA ESP Poet Laureate. His poems and his poster designs have appeared in NEA Today.

“I never dreamed that those poems would get published,” said Arnold, who is known for his humility and quiet leadership. “Now I know that anything is possible.”