Unasked questions: conversations with custodians

They appear early in the morning, when you’re still in bed. They park their cars all across campus. Few people know their daily schedules. “They” are the custodians of Williams College – the force of men and women who come like saviors to mop our food-stained floors and empty our overflowing bathroom garbage cans.

Yet, as you might have already discovered when you bump into your custodian and exchange a few groggy early morning words, they are much more than cleaners and repairmen. Delving into the lives of a few beloved custodians at the College reveals some very interesting personalities, talents and memories of bygone crazy happenings around campus.

Ask a few people on campus if they remember a cool custodian and chances are many will mention the same man: Curtis Cowell. That’s right, Cowell – a Mission Park custodian who has been at the College for 14 years. Cowell is loved no doubt because he really gets to know the students, learning their names and cultures, playing pool matches and, perhaps most notoriously, engaging in every type of sports discussion. “I have some healthy discussions with New York sports fans,” Cowell said. “I’m a Boston fan – anything Boston. I’ve had a season ticket for 26 years for the Patriots.” These discussions extend past mere two-minute conversations in the hallways. “I text back and for with one student who’s now a sophomore about the Celtics and the Lakers,” Cowell said. “We might not talk much during the summer and all of a sudden we’ll get a text – a little dig here and there. That’s what’s great – you can have these friendships develop with the students.”

Outside of the College, Cowell is not only a family man (with four kids, a black lab and two kittens) who has coached t-ball, Minor League, Little League and Baby League, but is also a humanitarian who hopes to resume volunteering at Hospice of Northern Berkshire someday. When he was college-aged, Cowell used to work at Hospice, helping people through the last stages of their lives. “In every death there tends to be a bright moment for the family,” Cowell said. “The fact that I worked there really made me who I am today. I like to think about what Jimi Hendrix said, ‘I’m the one that has to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life, the way I want to.”

After working at the College for 14 years, Cowell has a stockpile of knowledge about crazy and touching happenings. According to Cowell, back in the ole days there was a party room below Armstrong with a bar, which students would use for foam parties. “The students would go nuts, covering everything with foam and soap. I think they would wear swimwear to the party,” Cowell said. “When we tried to clean it the soap would go everywhere even more.”

On the more touching side, Cowell recalled that a few years ago a group of sophomore students would attend the local sports games he coached. One of the boys he coached, Caleb, was 7 years old and had cancer. “I came in on Monday and the sophomores handed me a jar with $1000 in it that they had raised for Caleb,” Cowell said. “They had had a party down in the bar, and had raised money with Jello shots and Beirut and gambling.”

Another long-time Mission custodian, Cathy Boody, “The Queen of Mission,” has had similar very personal relations with her students over her 19 years at the College. Boody recalls that her class of ’98 once invited her to a Mothers’ Day luncheon. She would bring them delicious creations she baked herself. “We had some great times. I still keep in touch with a few of them. I know how to e-mail now, you know,” Boody said. “Matter of fact, one of the boys is getting married next week and he’s in New York.”

Married to her husband for 46 years, Boody has two daughters and two grandchildren whom she hopes might someday attend Williams. Interestingly enough, Boody has a barn with horses on her property. She is passionate about horseback riding and rides on trails that leave right from the end of her dead-end dirt road. And, like Cowell, she gives back to other people. “I did pony rides for about 20 years, bringing my ponies to picnics and other events,” Boody said. “I think they need that. They need to be with animals more.”

Lead Custodian Richard Daniels from Williams Hall, at Williams for 17 years, leads a whole other career apart from the College: firefighting. On the fire department for 25 years, he went from a basic firefighter to Assistant Chief and, to top things off, also fights forest fires in his role as the Williamstown Forest Warden. “We just had a fire last week on Pine Cobble in a professors’ house that was being built,” Daniels said. “We sprayed it from the outside, but it turned into an 18-acre forest fire. So we were there until quarter of 5 until 10 at night. And the next morning we had to go back and finish putting it out.”

Daniels enjoys fighting forest fires because he loves the outdoors – hiking, biking, having campfires and cookouts with his family. A proud father of two sons and a daughter, Daniels thinks his favorite memory was when his sons helped him fight a fire. “We got there before the chief and slowed the fire. The chief made a fuss over them, ‘If it wasn’t for those two kids who helped us out … ’” Daniels said. This moment started his two sons off in the firefighting world, and now they share his passion and are both involved as well.

Although Tammy Lefebvre has only been at the College for three years, taking care of Bernhard Music Center and Lehman, she feels as though she has been with the campus much longer because she used to cut students’ hair in a local barbershop. “For a while everyone would get the bowl,” she said. “It was awful. It was hard to get everything perfect, but you had to. I always wanted to be a hairdresser when I was little.” Of course, she didn’t have to give the bowl to former president Morty Schapiro’s hair, which she cut regularly.

Decorating and baking are Lefebvre’s passions – anything that involves creativity draws her in. “I love baking, cooking, all of that. I can’t get away from my chocolate chip cookies,” she said. “Every family gathering, that’s my assignment – they’re huge and really thick.” Despite the fact that she has two children and five grandkids and works at the college, she still cuts hair on the side. In fact, she had to skip off from our interview to an appointment to cut the hair of Steve Fein, professor of psychology.

Like Lefebvre, Willy custodian Andy Briggs also just came to the College three years ago. However, his wife Lisa, whom he met at a bowling alley, has worked in Grab ’n’ Go for 21 years. Previously, Briggs was a press operator, printing stationery. “I actually printed stationery for all these famous people,” he said. “I did it for the president, for Clinton’s inauguration, for a lot of actors and actresses … Paula Abdul.”

With a passion for traveling, Briggs has driven to California four different times via different routes, seen Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, and white-water rafted in the Colorado River. Wanderlust aside, Briggs has embraced the College and the College has reciprocated. “I went to dinner on Tuesday with the new President, and the custodians from the Hopkins Hall group,” Briggs said. “It was awesome. He’s a smart man. He’s traveled.”

There you have it – reason to go beyond saying, “Good morning I have to brush my teeth mmphbrh,” to asking your custodian about his dog or how he met his wife. You never know what you might hear: crazy parties, brushes with fame and presidential coiffure are just some likely candidates.

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