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Above: A socially distanced send-off for the beloved custodian in front of Major Ballachey Public School

A Socially Distanced Send-Off Honours Custodian’s 35 Years of Service

Deep in the belly of Major Ballachey Public School, tucked away inside a tool cupboard in the custodian’s room, is evidence of a friendly competition one hundred years in the making.

Right: Custodian Dave Dowden rolls up his sleeve to reveal his Major Ballachey Bears tattoo

Inside that cupboard, a wooden board documents the career of someone known only as W. Davidson, evidently the school’s first custodian. Davidson assumed the role in 1920, when ‘Major B’ opened its doors. As the cupboard door reveals, Davidson commemorated his/her start date with the strokes of a pencil, then added each subsequent year at the school below it. The years became decades until they stopped in 1940.

Enter Dave Dowden, when this history lesson picks up again in 1988.

Dowden began his career as a school custodian a few years’ earlier, but it was ‘Major B’ that would become his “happy place” for the next few decades. He added his name and start date next to his ghostly predecessor’s, and since that day, the race for the longest-serving staff member the school had ever seen was on.

Right: The inside of a tool cupboard in the custodian’s room documents the years worked by two of its longest-serving staff members

Dowden won by 12 years, retiring this week after 35 years in the role, 32 of which were spent at ‘Major B.’

“I could probably spend the day blindfolded, and still find my way around this school just fine,” says Dowden, who was honoured with a socially distanced surprise send-off from the school community he’s so beloved by. “I never once thought of this as a job – I had too good of a time.”

Principal Mark Fraser remembers his introduction to Dowden. Fraser had driven into the school’s lot on his first day, and above the closest parking space to the main entrance – which Fraser had assumed was for him – was a sign that said Reserved for the Mayor of Major Ballachey, Mr. Dowden.

“I walked into the school racking my brain, wondering who this Mr. Dowden was… obviously he was a big deal,” Fraser recalls. “The office staff lit up when I mentioned his name and said, ‘Wait till you meet Dave.’”

Fraser says he quickly learned that Dowden was the heart and soul of the school.

“He lives and breathes ‘Major B,’ and takes care of this school and the people in it as if it were an extension of his own home,” says Fraser. “Everyone in this school community knows who he is, and everyone is going to miss him.”

Dowden’s dedication to the school is serious. He’s been known to spend vacation days volunteering to chaperone school field trips. He even has a bear paw – the Major Ballachey Bears insignia – tattooed on his left arm. One of his first plans in retirement is to add his working years below it.

Right: The sign above Dowden’s parking space at Major Ballachey

Grand Erie’s Multi-Year Plan includes Environment as one of its key indicators, and it is custodial staff who build that foundation, ensuring a safe, clean, welcoming home-away-from-home for students. But beyond knowing where every beam and breaker is located and being able to troubleshoot any building issue that might arise, the commitment of custodians like Dowden goes over and above the job description to positively impact the lives of students.

As Dowden’s socially distant retirement send-off winded down on the front lawn of the school, a former student’s face lit up as he recognized him.

“You were such a great role model,” the student told Dowden.

Photos by Grand Erie Communications

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