Theresa Kelly Gegen is IASB director/editorial services and editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
In September of 1971, Gus the Custodian stepped out of the boiler room and onto the pages of TheIllinois School Board Journal.
The creation of David Carr and Clifford Chaffee, members of the elementary education faculty at Northern Illinois University, the first “From the Boiler Room” column was published in the same issue as a piece on principal salaries – $12,000 to $24,000 at the time, a report predicting what education would be like in the Year 2000, and the IASB’s response to The Illinois Constitution of 1970 and its mandate creating the State Board of Education.
In that inaugural column, the fictional custodian, Gus, lamented that his fictional school, Eastside Grammar, was in a ping-pong arms race against Westside Grammar School (also fictional). The competition between Eastside and Westside was a feature of many columns to come.
They even made old Bessie Waite teach decimals and fractions to our third-graders. Guess third grade was too easy before. I don’t see that it makes much difference with the amount of paper on the floor.
Also making regular appearances in “From the Boiler Room” was Mr. Keck, the fictional principal of Eastside. According to Gus, Mr. Keck was one smart fellow, always knew best, had all the answers and could do no wrong. Most columns ended with the tagline “… ’cause he’s the principal.”
Mr. Keck is wantin’ a conference with me right after recess that I got to remember. S’pose he has more deciding to do. He does pretty good after he talks with me – that is, about decidin’ things. After all, that’s his job, ’cause he’s the principal.
In his 43 years of custodial commentary, Gus could be a powerful purveyor of sarcasm, yet from the beginning he offered inspirational quotes, related conversations he and Mr. Keck had on school reform and passed along book and article recommendations that were both nonfiction and not fictional.
Upon Chaffee’s retirement in 1985, Carr, then on the faculty at West Georgia College, continued to provide Gus’s folksy wisdom as a solo effort. In January, 1991, he was joined by Richard Smelter, then principal of Capron Elementary School in North Boone C.U. District 200. Carr had been Smelter’s advisor at Northern, and he selected Smelter as his co-columnist after making a list of “the most sarcastic people” he knew. In their first official collaboration, Carr, Smelter, Gus and Keck tackled the problem of radon gas.
That’s why we should be grateful for real problems like asbestos fibers and radon gas. Saves us having to invent them.
Sort of like 20 years ago or so, when we went and tore down all the walls between the classrooms, and 15 years ago, when we put them all back.
In July 1997, Carr retired as the collaborative voice of Gus. Smelter continued to write “From the Boiler Room,” saying that using “gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) sarcasm is the best method I know of to remind these folks that the profession is still dominated by regular types who have not failed to notice their foibles.”
Smelter’s commentaries started with droll story-telling and ended with “’cause he’s the principal.” But in between were specific, common-sense recommendations to school board members and administrators. Sometimes Gus went a little off-topic, lamenting annual holiday letters, considering the power of pizza and taking note of district romances (again, fictional). Among the on-point topics that Smelter’s boiler room protagonist tackled: thermostat wars, curriculum challenges, childhood obesity and buzzwords.
Why, if you’re not walking around the school bragging about how many of your paradigms you’ve shifted lately, you’re about as modern as a poke bonnet… I guess a great educational insult would be to say to someone, “you miserable paradigm non-shifter!”
In May 2004, Smelter removed Gus’s customary cap and took a serious turn, writing as himself on the subject of school funding, noting that there is “nothing even remotely comical” about short-changing children.
To the extent to which we fund children’s education at different levels, to that extend do we treat children unequally. To the extent to which we treat children unequally, to that extent do we violate their civil liberties vis-à-vis equal protection under the law. To the extent to which we violate their civil liberties, to that extent we are shamed.
Gus returned with his usual aplomb in the next column, and continued true to form until this past spring.
Richard Smelter died on March 6, 2014. A retired public school administrator, since 1977 he had also served on the adjunct faculty of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. He was an historian and novelist in addition to being an administrator, professor and columnist. He was also a semi-professional musician.
With Smelter’s passing, so passes Gus.
Gus was head custodian at Eastside Grammar School for 43 years. He and his wife, Pearl, lived down the street from Eastside. He was also a “top-notch fisherman and not a bad dancer.”
“From the Boiler Room,” IASB Journal, September-October 1971
“From the Boiler Room,” IASB Journal, March-April 1980
“From the Boiler Room,” IASB Journal, January-February 1991
“From the Boiler Room,” IASB Journal, January-February 1998
“From the Boiler Room,” IASB Journal, May-June 2004
Still in the Boiler Room , IASB 2009