Night Custodians: Highlighting the Hidden


By Jenna Tuttle and Jenna Tuttle

It’s 10 o’clock on Tuesday night and all is quiet in Keyser Hall except for the closing of a door and the soft pitter-patter of footsteps. All souls have left the campus except for the occasional Mock Trial kid, the elusive journalism nerds, and five night custodians. Each custodian, supervised by boss Pat Gannon, roams the nearly empty school from 4 p.m. until midnight, give or take an hour, in order to give the school an undercover sprucing-up. Although each man tells his own unique tale of how he came to Tam, they now work tirelessly each night to keep Tam in the beautiful state  teachers, students and staff have become accustomed to.

“Van” Hahn Tran:  Upper & Lower Keyser

Kind hearted and unconfident in his English, Tran digs his stress-free custodian job.

“You sometimes have to fight tough in this country to survive,” said Tran. After leaving his home in Vietnam in 1995, Tran enrolled in college to become a graphic designer, but he found the competition to be too intense.

“It didn’t fit me,” he said. Tran quit school and applied for a custodian position at Tam, a job that didn’t require a degree. For six years now, Tran has worked as a night custodian in peace.

“This job is one of the least stressful jobs in the country,” he said. “You won’t find any competition. There is no pressure.” Outside of his job, Tran enjoys kicking it with friends in the pub, drinking coffee and listening to old school tunes.

Mitchell Perkins: Gus Gym & Palmer Hall

Though not fond of being photographed, he is a man with a warm handshake. “I’ve been doing this line of work for more than 20 years,” said Perkins. “It’s the only work I know.”

After starting the job at Tam in 1998 as a substitute custodian, Perkins was hired full-time two years later. Perkins takes pride in being there for the Tam staff and for his friends and family. His young son is a large part of his life. “I’m here because I’m doing something for my son.”

Perkins often enjoys watching basketball games in the gym or playing a small game with his son. As for professional teams, he cheers for the Lakers and the Warriors. “Basketball,” he said. “That’s my game.”

The worst part of the job, he says, is cleaning the boys bathroom toilet. “It’s not a job you always enjoy but it’s a job you’re going to be doing the rest of your life so you better like it,” he said. Perkins offers these words of wisdom: “If you don’t want to be cleaning up after schools, stay in school.”

Long Phung: Woodruff Hall & Ceramics

Phung grinned on the verge of laughter despite the gloomy topic, and spoke to how much of a problem 73 seasick refugees on tiny boat could be. Phung, with his family, sailed for seven days and nights in an attempt to escape the Vietnamese communist regime of the 1970s.

“You could look anywhere,” he said. “Up was sky and down was water.” Phung ended up on a small refugee camp island with thousands of others before being readily accepted into the U.S. in 1980, largely because of his South Vietnamese military background.

“Here, there is law,” said Phung of his first taste of the U.S. “In a communist state, there is no law.” In Vietnam, he explained, people could be killed or robbed by the government without reason.

Phung worked at a ceramics company for 16 years before coming to Tam, his preferred job, in 1996.

“Ceramics were very dirty,” he said. Yet, ironically, he finds his custodian job is quite clean. “I came to [Tam] and it wasn’t very dirty.”

Guong Nguyen: Hoetger Hall & Weight Room

Nguyen doesn’t like to focus on the times of yore. “I want to put my past to the past,” he said. However, his history may be too interesting to forget.

Nguyen was a prisoner of war for years on end. It all began when Nguyen was attending college in southern Vietnam. A draft sent him into the air force. Nguyen traveled to the U.S. in order to train and learn English before returning home as a helicopter pilot. In 1975, South Vietnam lost the war to the north and just months later Nguyen was forced into a concentration camp, away from his family, for almost seven years. Nguyen traveled from camp to freedom to prison, over and over again.

“It was all very hard,” he said. His stories are akin to action movie scenes: from being captured at sea by communist forces to faking legal documents in an escape attempt, it was a dangerous time.

“Fortunately, they didn’t kill me,” Nguyen said. Finally, just before gaining passage to the U.S. and reuniting with the family he thought he’d never see again, Nguyen spent several months in an assimilation camp for immigrants.

Comfortably working as a night custodian for 14 years now, Nguyen thrives off of faith, family and freedom.

“I never feel lowly in the U.S.,” he said. “With the Lord, the people around me are brother and sister. I see no difference in class even though a custodian is an entry level job.” Nguyen ended with a statement of proverbial status. Sometimes, now that he is working in the U.S., he sees many who are lost. “There are a lot of people walking, but they don’t know where.”


Moris Mira: Wood Hall & Phoenix Hall

Mira points to the wrinkles on his forehead. “All these creases here are because I laugh a lot,” he said. Mira, who has been a night custodian for four years, loves Tam.

“The teachers are great, the students are great, and my boss is a great man,” he said. Mira, it seems, has found a happy spot after past troubles. “Sometimes we keep things deep inside,” he said. “But it’s good to get them out, even if it’s to a stranger.” His history is filled with stories of family issues, working at a car dealership, playing soccer, and DJing. He eventually ran away from it all when he traveled back to El Salvador, his birth country, for a time before returning to the U.S. and securing a job in the Tam District.

Mira is responsible for many acts of kindness ranging from putting fish in the Orange Court fountain to waxing the floors of Wood hall more often than mandated.

“[I am] a man that you’re always going to see smile, a man that you’re always going to see helping people,” he explained.

Written by Jenna Tuttle. This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.