By Brenna R. Kelly
When students arrived at Heritage Elementary–home of the Patriots–for the first day of school earlier this month, they were greeted by a Patriot handing out pencils.
Around Christmas, Santa Claus comes to their classroom; in spring the Easter bunny hops in. And when it’s time to learn about explorers Lewis and Clark, an authentically dressed pioneer shows them how to look through a transit just like the one the surveyors looked through more than 200 years ago.
Teachers rarely have to unlock their classroom doors at the Carter County school. If their car gets a flat tire in the parking lot, it will be fixed. If a parent runs out of gas in the pickup line, a quick fill will get them to the nearest gas station.
“You name it and Marvin’s there,” Principal J.C. Perkins said about the singular man fulfilling all of these roles. “He’s all about doing things for other people.”
Though his title is school custodian, Marvin McHenry is much more than that to the teachers, staff and students at the school. He is a Fred.
McHenry, who has worked at the school for seven years, won the 2015 Fred Award from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA). The award recognizes non-administrative staff, students or volunteers whose extraordinary effort creates a positive learning atmosphere at their school.
The award was inspired by the best-selling book “The Fred Factor,” by Mark Sanborn, in which he recounts how his postal carrier, Fred, goes the extra mile in delivering the mail and everything else.
The award was not the first time McHenry had been called a Fred. When Ronnie Dotson became Carter’s superintendent in 2011, he asked every district employee to read the book.
“Everybody started coming up to me and saying, ‘Marvin, that book is talking about you,’” McHenry said.
But McHenry doesn’t see his actions as anything special.
“It’s just my nature, I guess. I’ve always been that way,” he said. “I just enjoy doing it.”
He’s in the parking lot each morning when teachers arrive, helping them carry in large loads or just get into the building.
“He opens doors and anything he can to make it a little easier on us,” said preschool teacher Becky Cales. “If it’s raining, he’ll walk us in with the umbrella.”
Perkins, who nominated McHenry, is amazed at the lengths the 65-year-old will go to not only for other people, but also for the school itself.
“I’ve seen him start walking all the way across the parking lot and I wonder where he’s going and then he picks up a scrap of paper,” Perkins said. “Most people would say, ‘That’s a little piece of paper and it’s way over there.’ But he takes pride in our school, he wants the place to look nice.”
It’s that type of pride that can have a significant impact on a school’s culture and student achievement, said Rhonda Caldwell, KASA deputy director.
“The example he sets for these children daily is one of pride in the work, service to others and the kind of community-based thinking that will bring out the leader in each of these children,” she said.
In addition to teaching students by the example he sets, McHenry also teaches them about the past.
“I’ve always been into history,” said McHenry, who collects antique tools, operates a ham radio and participates in pioneer demonstrations.
When students begin learning about Kentucky history, McHenry brings in his arrowhead collection. When they learn about Morse code, he brings in the ham radio.
“To me, when you are talking about Abraham Lincoln or building a log house, that’s just words to students,” he said. “When they actually see the tools, they can relate to it.”
McHenry uses his vacation time each September to participate in a pioneer exhibition in Boyd County. In just a few days, more than 2,000 students from surrounding districts watch McHenry demonstrate how pioneers built their homes. He has become so well-known for his history demonstrations that he’s taken his tools and talents to several other schools, nursing homes and community groups in the area.
“Any time there’s a special event going on, they holler for Marvin,” McHenry said.
The same thing happens at Heritage Elementary, Perkins said.
“When teachers want something done and want it done well, they will holler at him,” Perkins said. “They know he’ll be right there. He’ll do it and do it well.”
Cales said McHenry stops to chat with her and her students each morning. He asks about her family and knows what’s happening in her life, she said.
“And he’s always smiling,” she said, “and it’s just one of those smiles where you can’t look at him and not smile back.”
Cales, Perkins and Dotson all traveled to Louisville where McHenry was one of three finalist for the award, which was presented at KASA’s conference in July.
“He about cried when he saw us,” she said. “He’s a very emotional person.”
Heritage students found out about the award when McHenry was honored at an assembly on the first day of school.
“Now, when I go up and down the hall all the kids say congratulations,” he said.
After more than 15 years of walking the halls of Carter County schools, McHenry plans to retire in December.
“Everyone comes up to me, teachers, parents, and says the school will never be the same,” McHenry said. But he assures them he’ll still be around.
“I told them when I leave, I’ll still be their Santa Claus,” he said. “For Easter, I’ll put the bunny rabbit on.”
Retirement will give McHenry the chance to follow his passion of bringing living history lessons to more students because he’ll have the time to visit other schools, he said.
“A lot of kids don’t get to see these kinds of things. Their parents are both working and they can’t take them anywhere, so this is an opportunity for me to have the kids see everything and I get the payback,” he said. “Three or four years down the road, a child will come up to me and say, ‘You’re the one who brought the tools to my classroom.’ That’s the pay back right there.”
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J.C. Perkins JC.email@example.com
Marvin McHenry Marvin.firstname.lastname@example.org