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Sandy Conrad, Facilities Management Custodial Service

Sandy Conrad, custodial group leader in the John Pappajohn Business Building. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Some 6,000 to 8,000 people pass through the John Pappajohn Business Building each day. A crew of eight cleans up after them.

Custodians almost everywhere on campus are rarely seen in action—but that’s only because they begin their workday when almost everybody else is heading home for dinner, says Sandy Conrad, a custodian in UI Facilities Management for nine years.

Conrad, as custodial group leader, oversees the people who make sure everything is spick-and-span by the time hallways, classrooms, and offices open each morning in the Tippie College of Business. As Conrad tells fyi, that means more than applying polish or picking up the mess—it also means anticipating the unexpected, handling the crisis, and remaining dedicated even when there’s not a thankful smile.

What’s a typical day like for you at work—or should we say, a typical night?

I supervise a custodial crew. There are eight of us, and we work 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Winters are hard. It’s dark when I get here and dark when I leave. I think I’ll get used to working the night shift about the time I get ready to quit—I retire next January. It actually goes pretty fast.

This is such a busy, big building. It’s divided into areas with each custodian having an average of 30-40 private offices, three public bathrooms, classrooms, auditoriums, and other places. Each custodian has a nightly routine of cleaning and disinfecting the restrooms, pulling trash, dusting, and vacuuming the private offices. Our classrooms are carpeted so the custodian must pick up all the trash, wash the desk surfaces and white boards, and vacuum the floor. The same goes in the auditoriums.

We have a great number of hard surfaces in the building, and even though we are lucky enough to have a riding floor scrubber, we spend many hours keeping them looking good by buffing. We spend a lot of time with a tennis ball on a stick rubbing out black shoe marks.

Of course, the winter brings snow, sand, and salt, and nearly doubles our work.

What’s the most unexpected thing to happen to you at work?

There’s some kind of emergency every day. A bathroom floods, and ceiling tiles are coming down below, or whatever.

We have an underground parking garage. Some inebriated kids were down there one evening. They ended up setting off some fire extinguishers, but their prank backfired and ended up frightening them, apparently, because they’d filled the whole parking garage with this white powder from the extinguishers. So they were beating on the door to be let in. The gal [custodian] whose area was near the garage doors let them in and this huge cloud of white powder floated into the building and set off the fire alarms. White powder went all through the building, and I had to get everybody out of the building. I thought there was a fire. All that fine powder saturated everything.

The police never found the guilty parties because I’d made everybody clear out. I didn’t want anybody getting caught in a fire.

Is that the toughest part of your job, responding to emergencies?

That’s the part I like. It’s fun. My job is basically troubleshooting, and I enjoy the challenge.

Custodians are the eyes and ears of the building. They’re the first on the scene of an emergency.

The University treats custodians well, and I won’t ever tolerate my crew being called janitors. They are so much more. They work hard, and they should make a lot more than they do. They have trouble accessing many of the opportunities most of the rest of the University community might take for granted—everything from getting a flu shot to attending a training class is that much more difficult for the custodian, because these things are set up for day workers. Even office parties—they tend to wind up just as we’re arriving.

Custodians are invisible, because we work at night, and so we often don’t get that thanks from the people we clean up after. But I don’t think it can ever be stressed enough how important a custodian’s job is. 

Your work must be physically exhausting. How do you unwind?

I like to bake and cook. I have a lot of flowers, and like to garden.

Of course, as you get older, you learn that everything that’s good becomes bad for you. I found a recipe for sugar-free fudge, and thought, What’s the point of that? Some things just aren’t the same without the bad things in them.

I enjoy studying genealogy, and recently discovered I have an uncle who was a big Civil War hero from a unit in Washington [Iowa].

What would you like other people to know about you?

When I became a Chrysler parts manager in 1978, I was the first woman Chrysler auto parts manager in the country, and there were very few with Ford and General Motors. By the time I left that line of work in 1999, there were a great many women auto parts managers.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? And did it pay off?

Getting remarried at 35 with six children between us, five of whom became teenagers the next year. It must have paid off—we’re still married, and we have 14 grandchildren. But now we look back and wonder how we pulled it off.

by Gary Kuhlmann


Past Profiles

Kembrew McLeod, Communication Studies

Penny Kaelber, Iowa Memorial Union

Susan McClellen, Creative Media Group

Pamela Terrill, UI College of Nursing


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