News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 30, 2010

The Off Season: The ‘Queen of Clean’ hangs up her mop …

By Mike Lunsford
The Tribune-Star

. — If Moni Thomas looks a bit startled in the photograph that accompanies this story, it’s because I caught her with the camera as she worked in the hallway at my school. Moni wouldn’t have wanted to be seated, wouldn’t have wanted to be still, not for one minute. There’s too much for her to do.

In fact, in all the years I’ve known her, I have never seen Moni sit down — not once. Moni doesn’t sit; she works. She patrols our halls like a litter cop, a whirling dervish of flailing arms and jangling keys, dust rags and plungers. I think Moni works harder than any person — man or woman, young or old — who I know, and that’s just one of the reasons I respect her so much.

Thomas is “retiring” this year from Southwest Parke Community School Corp.; she’s worked there for 24 years at whatever she’s been asked to do. Call her a “custodial engineer,” a janitor, chief bottle washer or shoe clerk, she takes pride in her job. I call her the “Queen of Clean.”

As she hangs up her mop, her official title is “custodial supervisor,” but if you think for one minute that means she avoids scrubbing toilets or wiping down blackboards, you’re wrong. No name tag, no business cards, no engraved stationery for Moni. She leads her troops with a bucket of soapy water in one hand, a spray bottle in the other.

“I think that whatever job you do, you should do it well and work hard,” she says. “You should always work hard at whatever you choose in life.”

Moni’s life has been one defined by labor. “There were seven of us kids, and we didn’t have much growing up, and sometimes things weren’t very neat and orderly. My aunt would come and get us every summer, and we would spend a week at her house. I thought I was in a mansion when I stayed with her. There was nothing out of place, and her house and yard were spotless. The yard was always mowed, and she had pretty flowers everywhere. She was always organized,” Moni says.

“When I would go to bed at night at her house, I remember the nice clean sheets we had to sleep on. At home, we sometimes just slept on a mattress because there were no sheets. The windows weren’t in good shape in our house, and in the winter, we would wake up with snow on our mattress.

My dad worked hard, at two jobs most of the time, and he did the best he could, but with seven kids, it was very hard. I remember thinking, when I grow up, I want to be just like Aunt Pearl and my dad.”

Moni’s life as a janitor started at Mecca Elementary in 1973 — she graduated from there in 1961, just before the high school closed. She scrubbed that building until 1987, when she left to work at the paper mill in Newport as a material handler, unloading big rigs and loading conveyors with bales of paper; she was there for six years. Next, she went to Sony for five years; she drove a forklift there, filling orders and working in the storeroom. Moni then went to Bemis — she was an assistant press operator — but in 2000 she came back to exorcise the dirt from our schools. Her family was raised, Riverton Parke was closer to home, and her husband, Bud, already worked for the corporation.

Bud, a quiet jack-of-all-trades, made much in the same mold as his wife, passed away a few years ago; he and Moni were married for 44 years. Moni has a daughter (Lisa), two sons (Steve and Rocky), seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. After retiring, she plans to spend more time with that clan, maybe find an hour here or there to crochet, play her keyboard or work in her own flower beds.

It’s not often, but in the mornings sometimes, before school, when the building is quiet and dark, and no one has been there to drop paper on the floor or slop soap in the wash basins or spill ink on desks or write on the walls, Moni will stop by my room to chat. Of course, she’s wiping down a desk or straightening my book shelf or rubbing at a spot on my carpet while we gab, but in that few minutes we usually share a story or two about our kids or our jobs before she’s off down the hallway, Hokey sweeper in hand, one eye on the floor while she scans the tops of the lockers for dust with the other.

It’s too bizarre to imagine that this small, wiry lady is ever going to give up work for a Social Security check and afternoons of shopping and watching the soaps. Moni is not destined for a rocking chair anytime soon; her idea of retirement simply means she’ll be cutting back on her hours. After a little back surgery last fall, I hope she’s now done bench pressing her body weight in copy paper boxes and climbing extension ladders, but I doubt it.

“I’m staying here 20 hours a week after my retirement because it’s hard for me to leave the students and staff,” she says. “I’m not sure if I would be happy at home all the time, although I have plenty to do. I love working around the kids, and the staff has been so kind to me. It has meant so much to me through the years, the kindness and respect I’ve gotten as I’ve worked here. This is also my family. I don’t hate anything about my job; I just worry that I can’t keep it clean,” Moni says.

One morning, a few weeks ago, I believe as she checked the plastic liners in my trash cans, Moni told me, “My aunt and my dad had a big impact on my life, so maybe if I do the best I can, maybe it will have an impact on some other person’s life.”

My friend, you have no idea…

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail, c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. For information about Mike’s books, go to his website at www.mikelunsford.com.