From the Gettysburg PO
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Fifty years after my first day of first grade, I can still see the shiny floors of Wendell Elementary School as we marched in to begin our educations. The freshly polished planks were products of Henry Soliah’s summer labors. My, how he could make those well-worn wood floors shine! And oh, what pride he took in the overall spic-and-span condition of that little two-story brick schoolhouse entrusted to his stewardship! As the remaining five years of elementary school proceeded, I recall never failing to be impressed on the first day of school by the fruits of Mr. Soliah’s summer spit-shining. “How can he make these old floors shine like that?” I wondered each first fall morning as we un-boarded our buses and dutifully paraded into the schoolhouse with that unique post-Labor Day mixture of sadness that summer was ending coupled with excitement about the new school year up ahead.
What most amazes me in my recollection reverie five decades after first setting foot in that little school house, is that I can still recapture the scent of Henry Soliah’s newly-polished floors. The building itself is no longer standing, having gone the way of thousands upon thousands of small-town schools that have closed or been merged during the past half-century. When I return to the place where my roots remain deeply planted, I can no longer see the old schoolhouse. But here a thousand miles to the east of where it once stood proud in the little prairie village, I can still smell the place, especially in this first fortnight of September. And though his bones have long lain buried in one of the little rural cemeteries near Wendell, I can still picture the gentle faithful custodian Henry who loved that schoolhouse, but even more us ragamuffin pupils whose work boots and sneakers would, he knew, soon undo all his summer labors.
You’d think that after a few years, Henry Soliah might have just given up. Oh, to be sure, for the health and well-being of the students and the school’s six teachers, it was important that the building be thoroughly cleaned over the summer break. But he could have started to let slide just a bit the spit-shine routine that left those floors so polished you could comb your hair just by looking down wherever you might be standing on the first day of school. It would not be so for such a self-respecting Norwegian custodial caretaker! No matter how fast his summer labors would be forgotten come the September onslaught of the Crayola-toting pupils, Henry Soliah’s countless hours of summer sweat-drenched labor polishing floors in that un-airconditioned brick building was worth it to him.
Down the road now five decades, I am sadly quite confident that during those half-dozen elementary school years I never once thanked Henry Soliah for all he did for me and my classmates. So, Henry, good and faithful servant, wherever you are in the larger life of God, I thank you now. Henry’s floor-faithful witness might serve us well as a new school year begins here in our own brick buildings miles and decades distant from Wendell Elementary. Work worth doing is worth doing well. “Good enough” papers and presentations can be polished just a bit longer to really shine and make a professor’s heart sing. So in ministry “out there” wherever you might be reading. Just a bit more effort might make that good sermon really great. Or knocking off a half-hour earlier at the office could put a spit-shine on the face of a family member yearning for more time with you at home.
Finally, here on this hilltop, I thank all my good coworkers for the labors of summer past spent spit-shining campus facilities, filing and catching up on record-keeping, polishing syllabi and preparing lectures, getting ready to welcome all our students to the new academic year now beginning. Henry Soliah would be impressed—and Henry’s would be an opinion worthy of our attention!
Michael Cooper-White, President