D.C. school to name hallway in honor of retired custodian

Ron Hillyer, who retired earlier this year, is getting a hallway named after him at Janney Elementary School in the Tenleytown section of Northwest D.C.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 9:15 PM

Some men get buildings named after them; others, streets. Ron Hillyer is getting a hallway.

Such tributes are often reserved for the dead or the famous. Hillyer is neither. He is a former D.C. school custodian, a man whose job involved scrubbing human waste off a playground at one school and discarding the burnt bottle caps of drug users at another.

Yet when Hillyer retired this year, ending a three-decade career with the system, Janney Elementary School in the Tenleytown section of Northwest Washington realized that it was losing more than just the man who kept the terrazzo tiles clean. It was losing its talent show emcee, its guide for the Halloween walk through the building's scary underbelly, its mock Civil War soldier who, with little prodding, would show up dressed in full uniform, ready to talk about the roles that African Americans played during the war.

"Hillyer Hallway" - as part of Janney will be known after a renovation is completed next year - was born of a series of moments that were not part of his job description but were very much part of the man.

Second grade was a bad year for Jeremy Phillips. His best friend had moved out of the region; his brother went away to college; and he entered a new school at midyear, after friendships had been formed and lunch-table alliances sworn.

"I wasn't doing so good, so they introduced me to him," Jeremy, now 8 and a third grader, said of Hillyer one recent afternoon. "He did make me feel better."

The first time they met, Hillyer handed Jeremy an R2D2 cassette player and spoke to him about science. Soon, the two were meeting regularly at lunchtime. Whenever Jeremy was feeling particularly low, he said, he would excuse himself from class to visit Hillyer.

"Mr. Hillyer was more of a dad to me than my own dad," Jeremy said. "He cared about me."

Jeremy's mother, Tiwanna Phillips, said she and her son both cried when they found out that Hillyer was leaving. "Mr. Hillyer made us both feel better," she said. "I'm just glad the school has that mind-set, that everybody in this building is important."

When Jeremy saw Hillyer one day after school during a surprise return visit, the youngster threw his weight into a hug. "I miss you," he said. "It's not that much fun now that you're gone."

Hillyer, 55, said his reasons for leaving were mixed: His mother died days before school ended last spring; he wanted to pursue another career while he is still able; and he saw the D.C. system take on a new atmosphere under Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, one in which he felt that employees' institutional knowledge was less valued.

In the last year, he met with Rhee twice to discuss how to get parents and students more involved. Despite his misgivings, he said, he would like to return to the city's schools to work on that initiative. "I'm not coming with complaints and problems," he said. "I'm coming with problem-solving."

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