From cleaning up nosebleeds (and other fluids) to chasing rogue squirrels down the hallways, Tom Fischer did it all. And by all accounts, he had a smile on his face the whole time, regardless of the situation.
Fischer sat down with the Observer on Tuesday to talk about his 24 years in the Oregon School District, most of which were spent as head custodian at Netherwood Knoll Elementary School. The man whom students affectionately call “Mr. Tom” is hanging up the broom, bucket and everything else at the end of the month, set to turn his attention to Madison’s lakes, where he hopes to start spending his sunny retirement days.
“The little kids all call me Mr. Tom, and I know everybody from Netherwood, and they all know me,” he said with a broad smile. “I enjoy all the kids. There’s always something different going on every day, so you never know what you’re going into.”
A Prairie du Chien native, Fischer started out in the restaurant business, following in the footsteps of his father, who owned a restaurant. In fact, he met his future wife, Deanna (a retired RCI teacher) when she was a waitress and he was a cook.
After they got married, her uncle from Ohio called to ask if they’d be interested in running a restaurant there, and for five years they did. They also welcomed a daughter into the word.
“We decided to go out there and be with all of our friends, instead of Prairie du Chien, where it was all my friends,” he explained.
They moved back to Madison in the late 1980s, where he started working for Perkins. When his wife got a job teaching in Oregon, before he knew it, he was also working for the district, and starting a new career.
“Good community,” he said. “The people are very good.”
Fischer started at Brooklyn Elementary and later moved to Oregon Middle School, where he helped put furniture together in the new building. Then, it was off to be the head custodian at Netherwood, where he helped develop the arboretum and made many trips to the old red brick schoolhouse (now the Gorman Company building), which was then used as a district warehouse.
“There was lots of stuff in that storage place,” he said.
At an elementary school, no two days are the same, Fischer said.
“For instance, this morning, I had a bloody nose to clean up, I had some pee on the floor I had to clean up, a swing set was broken, so I fixed that,” he said, a big smile never leaving his face. “Otherwise my normal duties are ordering supplies for the school, making sure everything is clean. I have three people who work there at night.”
Now, instead of chasing down squirrels and making sure there’s enough paper towels to go around, he’ll be chasing some big fish and making sure he’s got enough bait in the tackle box. Fischer said he intends to spend some time in his pontoon boat finding all the good fishing spots in the Madison lakes.
“I’m ready to go,” he said.
With some more time on his hands, he and Deanna are also planning on taking some trips they have not had time for, like visiting their youngest son, David, who lives in Denver.
“We’re taking two weeks and going out there,” he said. “I’ve never been in that part of the country … looking forward to that, and then maybe Hawaii.”
In the meantime, Fischer has nearly a quarter of a century of memories to look back on, and hundreds of people — kids and colleagues — whom he was glad to get to know.
“When I left the restaurant business, I thought I would miss it, but I didn’t miss the business, I missed all the people who were at the restaurant,” he said. “I’ll miss all the good people around here, and every school you go to they’re different, but they’re all good.”
Remembering ‘Mr. Steady’
Fischer, too, will be missed — by many.
District superintendent Brian Busler called Fischer “an educator in every sense of the word.” Busler said his influence goes beyond the district, citing his work with Oregon Soccer and Special Olympics.
“He is a kind, hard-working, positive individual that seeks the best in students and adults (and) all the students know him and respect him,” Busler wrote in an email to the Observer. “We will miss Tom and wish him the best in his retirement. He has taken care of NKE and people in it for years.”
Former NKE principal and current OHS associate principal Dan Rikli called Fischer “Mr. Steady” and said in their seven years together at the school, “I never saw Tom without a smile on his face.”
“As head custodian he was asked to do many things that most people would refuse to do,” Rikli wrote in an email to the Observer. “He was summoned on the spur of the moment to clean spills and messes that are unimaginable, always with a smile. He has very high standards and took great pride in making NKE the best place for kids as possible.
“I never had to worry when Tom was on the job.”
Despite some tough jobs, Fischer’s sense of humor never left him, Rikli said.
“Tom would dress up like staff members and march into their area,” he said. “I will never forget the time Tom came into the office with a big flower in his hair similar to one an administrative intern often wore. His smile, sense of humor and kind nature will leave an everlasting impression on the staff and students at NKE.”
NKE principal Chris Kluck said the head custodian position is “so important to an elementary school, and having someone like Tom is such a huge support.”
“It is easy to see that Tom cares not only about the building, but the people that spend so much time in it,” Kluck said. “Tom has provided a level of comfort to me, knowing that he was always aware of concerns and proactively taking care of it all.”
Kluck said though he’s only worked with Fischer for two years, “it was clear immediately the high regard” the entire school and larger community held him in.
“It is a complex role that he juggles, and he always does it with a smile,” Kluck said. “He seems to anticipate what you need and have it done before you even realize you might ask for his help. Tom just finds a way to make everything possible. I know the students will miss his playfulness and supportive personality.”