The man behind the broom

 

SARAH KOCHER

sakocher12@ole.augie.edu

Albert Wendt firmly believes push brooms are for leaning on.

He’s the kind of guy who still carries around a cloth handkerchief, and he’ll tell you that if you’re not engaging the students, you’re not doing your job.

Every time you pass by, he’ll have a new tidbit for you to digest. For instance, did you know that 82 percent of left-handed people are natural blondes? Albert will tell you. “I read that in the paper,” he’ll say, “Oh, 20 years ago.”

Albert is willing to discuss any topic you throw at him, from the nuances and importance of tutoring, to the length of your last name and how that influences your political prominence, only to move on to advocate education in deaf culture.

Every student deserves a different topic. The better he knows you, the more he can focus on the tidbits you’ll find really interesting.

And Albert does try to get to know you. He holds the door open for students he hasn’t interacted with yet to gauge how well they respond. If the students are grateful and willing to strike up a conversation, Albert is friendly. Even if the students are not, Albert is still friendly.

Karla Frank, Albert’s coworker in Solberg, says that’s just how Albert is. “Affable and amiable,” she says. “He has the same disposition all the time.”

Albert is a puzzle to students and faculty at Augustana: Each one glimpses a little piece of him, all of which fit together to make up the cordial janitor.

“Did you know his son drives a beef jerky truck?” freshman Dillon Cathro will ask you. “He’s really big about cleaning the student vacuums,” says Frank. If a student has vacuum problems, “all they have to do is come to see Albert for that.”

What you can’t find out from others, Albert will tell you himself, but you must ask.

The 75-year-old man was born in July of 1937 into a farm life northeast of Mitchell: “Out in the sticks, I always said,” and he wouldn’t want it any other way. He competed in 4-H as a child, showing heifers and pigs and receiving ribbons and awards at the South Dakota State Fair. “Just a few little things,” he says with a smile.

After attending SDSU, he moved out to Illinois to work on a dairy farm for a summer job. “It took me 15 years to get back to South Dakota,” he shares. Albert worked at Bendale Farm as a showman of Brown Swiss cows.

One such cow was the National Grand Champion Cow, crowned at the Illinois State Fair with Albert as its showman. But it wasn’t just a pretty cow.

“She was Cupid,” Albert divulges with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s how my wife and I met.”

His wife roomed with his only sister, both working at the Methodist hospital in Mitchell. Albert got his picture in the paper for his champion Brown Swiss, and his sister came out to see him. She brought along her roommate, Mildred. They were married as soon as Albert moved back to South Dakota.

“I accumulated some livestock and had the opportunity to take over some farmland,” he says. So he did it.

Now, Albert is the proud father of three daughters and three sons, all of whom were purposefully named so as to have double letters in their spellings and nicknames readily available. “You never know when you name a person what their accomplishments are gonna be,” he states seriously. You need to have a serious, strong name, just in case, but a nickname for the family to call you by.

And all the while, he has lived on a farm. While he may not keep livestock anymore, Albert still works around the farm, cleaning up “this and that,” gardening, and riding his tractor. And while his tractor is good to him now, he was not so fortunate in his earlier years.

It’s not something you catch right away. Perhaps he’ll be gesturing and his hand will catch the light, and it’s then that you’ll notice: Albert is missing the index and middle finger on his right hand.

“What happened?” You’ll ask, and he’ll tell you, as unruffled as always, that not many people notice that. It was a 50 roller chain from the motor’s crankshaft, and then he’ll go on about the inner workings of a tractor (yet another area of expertise). A brace broke in his tractor, he’ll explain, and instead of turning the switch off, he reached into the engine to fix it while the tractor was still running.

The sprockets have teeth, “so it’s hungry,” he divulges with all the elderly charm he can muster. These things happen, he’ll state wisely. “There’s a lot of people more misfortunate than I am. Accidents happen and you just gotta pick up and go from there.”

Now, Albert works in town, both at Augustana during the day, and in the evening, at HyVee. His jobs often intersect, he says. Students shopping at HyVee recognize the blue eyes, buzz-cut hair and pert square glasses and say hello to their friendly neighborhood Albert. “There were some coming through the store who hollered at me, and they were students,” he’ll recall. “You run together, and you get to know each other.”

For Albert, this includes knowing his students outside of their school life as well. Several of the teachers were in “my dorm,” he’ll declare proudly, referring to whichever one he was watching over at the time.

In Albert’s 29 years here, he’s worked in Bergsaker, Solberg and Granskou. “You meet some of the neatest students.”

Because of his devotion to knowing the students, he recognizes relationships between them, knowing which ones are siblings, cousins or good friends. After the years started passing, he even began meeting the next generation of students, kids whose parents were in his dorms all those years ago.

One such family, the Hechts, all know Albert. Albert had both Mark and Carmen Hecht in his dorm when they were students in the eighties, and now, while working in Solberg this year, he had the opportunity to meet their daughter, freshman Peyton Hecht. “He still remembers my parents’ room numbers,” she says. Carmen Hecht says she can’t even remember her own room number.

“I’m excited Peyton’s in that hall,” Mark Hecht says.

“And with a custodian that’s looking out for her,” Carmen Hecht adds. “He’s seen our kids grow up.”

As students like the Hechts come in and out of his dorms, Albert will remember the majority of them. He’ll have talked with this one about dogs. He’ll have chatted with this one about the weather, and if you ever ask him how he is, he’ll probably voice the same sentiment, without fail: “I’m still kicking.”

All while leaning on a push broom.