by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This is a story about taking pride in your work, whether it’s saving children or cleaning toilets — or, in Willie Davis’ case, both.

Willie Davis is a janitor. Oh, you can call him a custodian, or a caretaker, or a sanitation engineer. You can call him the King of England if you want, he still takes a broom every day and cleans the dirtiest corners of Arthur Smith Junior High School in Alexandria, La.

And when he’s done sweeping, he mops. And he waxes the floors. He does the windows. He mows the lawn. He plucks the weeds. When he has to, he cleans the toilets.

And when the day’s work is done, he puts a whistle around his neck.

And he coaches the boys basketball team.

And it wins like crazy.

“I tell the kids, whatever you do in life, do it well,” Davis says. And true to his word, he has led them to three district titles in the past four seasons and has a 91-14 record. His kids listen. They look up to him.

He also has the cleanest locker room in the league.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, laughing. “The kids know, if there’s a candy wrapper on the floor, I’ll be the one saying, ‘Let’s pick that up.’ And they do, too. No questions asked. They say ‘OK, Coach Davis.’ “

He laughs again. It’s the “coach” part of that sentence that he enjoys the most.

No raise, but he would do it for free

Now, we all remember school. Wasn’t the custodian often the guy kids looked up to the most? He was an adult, but he wasn’t to be feared, like some teachers. And he usually had a sense of humor — unlike almost everyone in the school office.

Davis, 38, who stands just 5-feet-7 (“A Calvin Murphy type,” he jokes), was only hired to sweep up and empty the buckets when he took his job nine years ago. He was paid, he says, $1,200 a month, and hasn’t had a raise since.

The only increase in his income has been the $900 a year they give him to coach the boys team.

And that he would do for free.

“My kids ask me all the time, ‘Coach Davis, how come you coach us but you’re the janitor here?’ ” he says. “I tell them, ‘That’s why you have to stay in school and get an education.’

“I tell them I never got the chance to go to college. But you kids can.”

Davis’ own basketball career was snipped, ironically, just after junior high. His father died. Suddenly, he no longer could spend his after-school hours shooting with his teammates. He had to work.

“My mother was on welfare, there were five of us in the house, and I needed to help out,” he says.

He graduated from high school, thought about going into the Army, but decided to stay around his hometown. He worked tirelessly, assorted cleaning jobs, including the one at Arthur Smith. When a coaching shortage left the school without anyone to guide the basketball team, Davis — who had spent time coaching in Catholic leagues — said he would do it.

His team has been cleaning up ever since.

The Lord, books and basketball

There are several reasons Davis succeeds. The first, he admits, is a love of children. He has three of his own. He can talk their language. He is also a father figure for many of his kids. He believes in discipline.

In the first game Davis ever coached — this was in a Catholic league — he had a young man named Juan Pierre, who would grow up to become a star rookie for the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Pierre was a hotshot young player. But his attitude, Davis recalled, was bad.

“So I sat him down. I said, ‘When you’re ready to play with a good approach, you tell me. Otherwise, you’re on the bench.’

“Fifteen minutes later, he said, ‘Coach, I know how I have to act.’ And I never had a problem with him again.”

Here is where you will have problems with Davis: schoolwork. The custodian takes it seriously.

“I tell my kids it’s the Lord first, books second, basketball third,” he says.

Last year, his five starters had straight-A averages.

It’s hard to find a coach with those numbers.

Basketball season just ended in Louisiana. So Willie Davis concentrates on his day job now, sweeping, mopping and mowing. There is no feeling that he’s above the work.

“I tell my kids, whatever job you do, do it the best you can,” he says. “If it’s cleaning a bathroom, make that bathroom shine and you’re gonna get some credit.”

You listen to Willie Davis, surrounded by brooms, dustpans and garbage cans, and then you think about NBA stars who moan about having to fly commercial, or having to actually, gulp, go to practice, and you are convinced, more than ever, that the role models for our kids are not on TV but right there, just around the corner.

Some of them are swinging mops.

“I tell my kids, look at me, I got a lucky break.”

Other way around, Willie.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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