His Folger’s Can is Empty

The man with the shepherd crook disguised as a dust mop has died. There is a melancholy in the closet where the mops lean against the wall and the Folger’s can is empty, no longer filled with Brach’s candy. Rusty gave it all away.

General Douglass MacArthur said, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” except for one soldier in my youth who will never fade. Albert “Rusty” Matthews was a war hero, unbeknownst to me. I knew him as the custodian, the guy with candy who knew my name and treated me as if I was worthy of a grown up conversation although I was only ten years old. His office was a supply closet scented with pine cleaner. He was a guidance counselor in janitor clothing, counseling the shy and socially disconnected in a school hallway with a dust mop and pockets filled with hard candy waiting for an orphaned moment of childhood insecurity.
Rusty the Janitor
So many children loved Rusty. We knew so little about Mr. Matthews, except he loved us and watched out for the lost children, the quiet ones, the cast aways, the unpopular. He didn’t have an MBA, but he was a police officer, a lumber man, a janitor, a decorated war hero. My daughter recently asked about furthering her education and I told her a few things about getting an MBA degree, but I wish I had told her this.

Be like Rusty. Live your life with a sense of wonder, a gleam in your eye, and candy in your pocket. Love the gentle, the shy, the broken, the hurting. Do the menial, the necessary, the dutiful, and when you are able, the heroic. But mostly polish floors and sweep away dirt and shine your life with gems of friendship, hard work, and a reputation beyond reproach. And then people will judge you for who you are, not by what hangs framed on your wall. Get a long handle dust mop to guide lost sheep while you work, a generous pocket of candy, and speak with those who don’t know how to talk yet…those things are hard to frame and hang on a wall…but immeasurably more valuable than any degree.

Rusty, we’ll miss you old soldier, sweeper of floors, watcher over children. You will never fade away.

9 responses to “His Folger’s Can is Empty”

  1. Brent, that is an awesome tribute to Mr. Matthews. He did love the kids and made them feel special. Another “custodian” I remember is Brutus Prock. He knew all of the kid’s names at Ranch Heights and spoke to them everyday when they went through the lunch line. What a blessing to have a memory of someone like Rusty Matthews. I wish your tribute could be put in the paper. Everyone should read it.

    • Thanks Karen, yes, Brutus was a gem also. A kind and gentle soul. Thanks for the comment and as always, for reading and contributing to the conversation.

  2. Great picture of Rusty! We were feeling sad that there isn’t a service we can attend to honor Rusty. But you filled that void with your word picture of his life. When asked how he could remember so many of you kids, his reply was “Some kids I don’t remember because they just blended in like a gray house, but I remember yours”. Thanks, Brent.

  3. What a wonderful story about a wonderful man that was the most caring man I had ever met his wife Ruby was just the same. A lot of people knew him as Rusty the nice old man that worked on lawnmowers I knew him as grandpa. He now get to spend time with him wife Ruby Matthews the woman I call grandma. Life without them will never be the same but I’ve got great memories of both of them. Ps thanks for writing a beautiful story about Rusty aka grandpa to me.

    • Thank you Joshua and I’m sorry for your loss. You were fortunate to have such a fine man as your Grandpa. God’s blessings on you and your family as you remember and mourn your Grandpa Matthews.

  4. I remember Rusty from when I was in grade school. He was always the nicest guy. It seems he would always be at the door to let me in when I rode my bike to school with Billy and Lafe or when Ron’s mom dropped us off. He would always smile at me, tell me “good morning,” and remind me to watch my step. Truly selfless, he taught me so much about helping others–lessons I try to teach my own children.

    He is definitely missed.

    • Oh gosh…how did I not know Rusty passed away? I was such an uncomfortable little kid. I had so much anxiety and was afraid of nearly every one and every thing. Rusty took a liking to me for some reason and would take time out of his day of ceaning our school to make me feel special. He was such a gentle soul. I remember him so fondly and have often wondered about him. I’m so glad he touched others lives too and lived such a long time after his retirement. RIP old friend. We will meet again.

  5. Rusty was the janitor at Limestone Elementary in 1977-78 when my kids went there. My daughter was very tiny. Our name is McSperitt so he nicknamed her ‘Little Spirit’. He was a sweet, kind, friendly man!

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