The students chanted “Mr. Haze! Mr. Haze!” as he walked the long corridor, and some spontaneously popped out of line to hug him.
They handed him so many cards, in fact, that they filled several buckets, and students walked behind him to help him collect them all. Tickled by the show of affection, Mabry thanked them all, even the ones whose backpacks he regularly retrieves from the lunch room when they forget them.
“They’re like my children,” Mabry said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I’m like the old lady in the shoe.”
On a regular day, students at the school — about 45 miles south of Atlanta — sometimes come up to him to say they’re not feeling well (he sends them to the nurse) or other times to tell him about something that happened at recess. He knows most of the kids at the school, which has students in third through fifth grades, but says he can’t name each one.
“I know the little faces, but I don’t know every name,” Mabry said.
Then he put a fine point on it: “Some of them make you know them.”
Like Faith, who often forgets her backpack in the cafeteria, and Lucy, who just wants a hug.
“Faith comes up to hug me and says, ‘Lucy, you can’t hug Mr. Haze, he’s my friend,’ ” Mabry said, adding that Lucy got a hug, too.
Mabry said he hadn’t planned to do much for his milestone birthday, which was March 27, so he was happy the students made a fuss.
“I done had so many,” he said. “I’m just glad to be here.”
Did he feel like a celebrity? No. Did he feel special? No. He said he felt loved.
“He’s the most loved person in this whole building,” said Lori Gilreath, a reading teacher, who organized the surprise celebration. “He won’t brag on himself, but it doesn’t matter what he’s doing or where he is, he will always stop what he’s doing to take care of a child if that child is having a bad day.”
Mabry’s birthday started with his wife of 56 years, Bill Mabry, singing happy birthday to him. And he tried a dance called flossing, a hip-and-arm swing popular with young people.
“My wife was singing happy birthday, and I was dancing, if you can call it dancing. I’m not a good dancer,” he said. “You know this little thing called the floss? I was trying to floss. No, I cannot floss.”
Mabry, one of nine siblings who grew up picking cotton and peppers not far from the school, has been the janitor at Pike County Elementary for 13 years. The school recently hired someone to help him, but that person works a shorter schedule. Mabry arrives at 6:30 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 5:30 p.m.
Gilreath, whose three children graduated from the school, said Mabry is popular among the students because he’s a steady, kind presence in their lives. If a child approaches him, he will pause to give that child his undivided attention.
“He doesn’t expect a lot,” she said. “He just wants to work hard and love on people.”
Mabry switched professions to take the custodial job when he was 67 after never working as a janitor before. The textiles factory where he worked for 35 years closed, and he needed a job to help support his family — his wife and four children.
As an Army veteran, he knew how to clean. While he was in the service, he always had the tidiest area and shiniest shoes, he said.
He calls on those skills when he has to clean up messes others don’t want to touch.
“Mr. Haze, he works circles around all of us,” Gilreath said. “Its hard to keep up with him.”
Over the weekend, he said, he was still working through the piles of homemade cards at his house. He wanted to be sure to read each one.
One card from a student stood out to him. It read: “Mr. Haze, you are my sunshine.”
“I feel the same way about them,” he said.