Sam Landstra – Staff Writer
Night falls on Dordt University. The now dark campus dwindles in activity as scattered students, finished with their daily activities, journey back to their dorms.
While most individuals near the end of their day, Larry Van Gelder is just beginning his. The 61 year old Custodial Evening Supervisor pulls up to the Science and Technology Center at 10:00 pm riding his black Honda NM4 motorcycle—the “Bat-bike”, he calls it.’
His motorcycle helmet conceals unkempt, wispy white hair and thin wire frame bifocals. Van Gelder wears a “Dordt University Facilities” t-shirt and a hefty set of keys hang from denim shorts.
Inside, Van Gelder checks emails in his small, cluttered office hidden on the second floor of the Science and Technology Center. In previous years, the space operated as a maintenance closet. Croutons, a can of pringles, and an empty coffee cup cover papers on his desk.
Before joining the Dordt University Maintenance Department in 2003, the Orange City native worked the night shift at a local wholesale meat plant and held stints as a part-time janitor in British Columbia and a life insurance salesman.
“I love meeting people but didn’t like the job,” says Van Gelder, recalling his life insurance days. “So, I go ‘ehh’ I didn’t like wearing a suit all the time.”
Finishing up his office work, Van Gelder begins to make his rounds throughout the Science and Technology Center. A cart crammed with chemicals, cloths, a cordless vacuum, and other supplies accompany the 17-year Dordt employee on his route. The more materials on the cart, the more efficiently Van Gelder can clean. Tonight, he begins in the nursing lab, covering for another janitor on medical leave.
“These are creepy looking, aren’t they?” Van Gelder says, motioning at the several open-mouthed medical simulation mannequins lying eerily in beds. “I wanted to get a selfie but…”
Grabbing a cloth and spray bottle from the cart, Van Gelder scrubs at spills of fake blood dried onto tabletops. Whiteboards are cleaned, chairs are pushed back, and trash cans are emptied. Van Gelder never leaves a room imperfect.
“I would never admit to this, but some people think I am… particular,” Van Gelder says. “I don’t care how long it takes you. I want it to look good when you’re done.”
After checking adjunct rooms and closets, Van Gelder completes the nursing wing and heads back to his typical route in the building. A motion-triggered path of light precedes him in the otherwise dark facility. The jingle of keys and rattle of the cart break the quiet whir of air conditioning units.
Van Gelder passes a group of engineering students doing homework in a second floor cubby while sweeping up a mess. Late-night studiers offer Van Gelder a rare opportunity to interact with other humans while working.
“I think it keeps an older person younger too, being around young people.” Van Gelder says. “I don’t feel like I’ve changed much in 17 years.”
For the most part, students at Dordt keep the buildings on campus clean and respect the jobs of maintenance workers, according to Van Gelder. Nonetheless, an ill-advised prank or two often gives Van Gelder and his colleagues more work than they bargained for.
“People don’t realize it takes us extra time out of our schedule to get stuff like that cleaned up,” Van Gelder says.
At 3:00 am, the Science and Technology Center is empty. Work study students left hours ago, and the engineering majors called it quits at 1:00 am, the same time Van Gelder took his break. In the solitude, Van Gelder tunes a radio KDCR and turns the volume all the way up. Music echoes throughout the building.
Many individuals would find loneliness in this scene, yet Van Gelder embraces the seclusion—and he’s not ready to leave anytime soon.
“Seven, eight more years?” Van Gelder says. “I see no reason to quit.”
He isn’t alone. At 61 years old, Van Gelder is one year removed from the second most populous demographic of male janitorial workers in America (60). An estimated 47,000 men work custodian jobs at the age. However, a sharp decline exists afterwards. Only 28% of these individuals continue into till 69, like Van Gelder hopes to.
Van Gelder checks his email one last time before punching out at 7:00 am. Light illuminates the Dordt campus. In an hour, students heading to class will find a fully cleaned Science and Technology Center.