Unsung Philosophers

Documentary tells stories of the often invisible custodians of American universities.

By Melanie Breault ’11

We walk past them everyday. As we go about our business — rushing to class, chatting with friends, or listening to iPods — we barely acknowledge the men and women who clean the restrooms, halls, and classrooms of America’s schools.

In the 2009 award-winning documentary The Philosopher Kings, director Patrick Shen and producer Greg Bennick shine the spotlight on eight custodians who work at the most prestigious colleges and universities across the country. On November 17, Shen, Bennick, and six of the eight leading characters came to campus for a special screening of the film and a talk in Emerson Suites.

“It doesn’t matter what your job is, how you dress, or how you look,” says Gary Napieracz, one of the film’s lead custodians from Cornell University. “Everyone has a story to tell.”

Many of these stories weave horrific tales of tragedy with inspirational triumphs. Take Melinda Augustus from the University of Florida. When she was nine years old, a hospital oversight put her mother in a coma for 11 years, leaving Augustus and her 15 siblings to take care of themselves.

“My mom was the glue that held everything together, and when that glue dissolved, everything fell apart,” she says. “I had a really rough childhood, but I don’t use that as an excuse.” She says it was her job as a custodian and the students she encountered that helped her move forward.

While fighting in Vietnam, Jim Evener, another worker from Cornell, was shot in the back. Waking up alone the next day, he dragged himself through the jungle for three days. Doctors told him he would never walk. The resilience that got him up on his feet again is reflected in his philosophy: “I figure I’m pretty darn lucky that I’m still here, so I make the most of every day.” He says he wouldn’t change his circumstances for anything in the world.

Despite their differences, these eight workers agree that they found wisdom through their careers and colleagues. “I’ve been very fortunate,” Napieracz says. “My career at Cornell has been fantastic. I’ve had the time of my life, and I can’t ask for anything more.” When a microphone was free after the screening, Arte Hardison, the assistant supervisor for second shift academics who has been working as a custodian at the College for 11 years, expressed his admiration for the cour­age and sophistication of
his fellow janitors.

At the end of the session, Shen described what he and Bennick wanted to say by making this movie: that you can make it through hardships by telling your story, listening to the stories of others, and always moving forward.

“One of my favorite quotes from the movie is, ‘What saves a man is to take a
step, and then another step,’ and I believe these guys really embody that,” Shen says.
“I think a lot of us are often looking for
that magic formula to get us through a particular suffering, but what I’m learning from these guys is to just take a step beyond the hardships.”