BAR HARBOR — On Friday, his last day on the job, Jamie Gonzales was still beaming from the honors bestowed upon him two days earlier at a Mount Desert Island High School girls’ basketball game.
“I was just so overwhelmed,” Gonzales said. “They didn’t have to do that for me.”
School administrators and faculty, students past and present, and generations of parents would all disagree. Gonzales, who last week retired after 44 and a half years as school custodian, deserved that recognition and so much more. His caring ways, positive attitude and sense of humor endeared him to all. In the words of former girls’ basketball coach and guidance counselor Burt Barker, Gonzales is “clearly an institution at the school.”
Gonzales especially is a fan of MDI sports teams. Undeniably basketball is his favorite. It is fitting that during the halftime recognition, Athletic Director Alfred “Bunky” Dow presented Gonzales with lifetime access to all MDI High School athletic events and a lifetime pass to all Eastern Maine basketball tournament games at the Cross Center in Bangor. Gonzales traditionally takes vacation time during the annual February tournament to attend many of the games, and not just ones involving the Trojans.
By his own estimate, Gonzales has helped put more than 22,000 kids through Mount Desert Island High School. Having no children of his own, he said he considers the students and staff to be his family.
“This job has been a good job,” Gonzales said. “I never regretted taking it.”
Born in Bar Harbor, Gonzales, who will turn 65 on Feb. 22, grew up in the Mount Desert village of Hall Quarry. He was in the first class to attend the new Mount Desert Island High School for four full years, graduating in 1969. He took the custodian job in September 1970, at first working swing shifts.
“We used to have somebody here 24/7,” Gonzales explained. In 1977, maintenance supervisor Earl Moser asked him if he would prefer working exclusively on the day shift. He didn’t have to think twice. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
During his career, Gonzales certainly did his share of keeping the school clean and safe. But his impact didn’t end there.
“He would volunteer at a drop of the hat,” Barker said. “He was always willing to donate his time or money.”
Gonzales funds two scholarships awarded annually to graduates. Less formally, he’s been known to buy lunch for a student short on funds.
“You can’t go without lunch,” he’d tell them. As explanation, he quickly adds, “Money isn’t everything in life.”
In speaking with others about Gonzales, everyone comments on the positive attitude he brings to the job.
“He always has a smile on his face,” Barker said.
At that halftime celebration, Dow noted that when asked how his day is going, Gonzales always answered with “excellent or great.”
“My head’s almost always up in the air looking at positive things,” Gonzales said.
His sense of humor is equally legendary. He delighted in playing tricks on staff and students alike. More than one freshman has fallen for the “birdcalls” he would discretely unleash during lunchtime. The older students knew it was Gonzales, but new students would look around the cafeteria for the bird.
“He thought that was the funniest thing,” Barker said.
In retirement, Gonzales said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Ida Mae, and in his woodshop crafting rocking chairs, quilt racks and other items. And he’s not turning his back on the school; he’ll be filling in from time-to-time and plans to visit often.
“I’ve been here a long time,” he said. “This is like home.”