by Pa Rock
Fred Blue was a crusty, crabby, cantankerous, and lovable old cuss. To generations of children who made their way through the Noel Elementary School in Noel, Missouri, he was known simply as Mr. Blue. And though he could often be heard fussing and even cussing as he pushed his broom or mop up and down the school’s hallways, everyone in that old stone building knew that Fred loved them and the school itself.
Fred was the school’s custodian and one of its bus drivers. He held those positions for more than two decades. He told me once that he had been at home working in his yard when the wife of one of the school board members drove by and stopped her truck in the road to talk – a very Ozark thing! She told him that they needed a custodian down at the school. He applied, quickly got the job, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I was the principal of the Noel School for six years and was technically Fred’s boss. I say “technically” because Fred didn’t take to well to being bossed. Dealing with the irascible Mr. Blue was usually best accomplished through finesse or negotiation – and even then the project would invariably be done the way that he wanted to do it. I remember calling him into my office one day and saying that I needed my own bulletin board. It was the Thanksgiving season and the elementary teachers had covered every bulletin board in the building with pilgrims and turkeys. I told him that I was sick of all the damned turkeys, and needed a place where I could post school announcements. The next day he had a nice, new board hanging outside of my office with my name on it. But in true Fred style, he had covered the entire thing in turkeys!
The line between Fred Blue’s private life and his work at school quickly became blurred. After his wife passed away, it was commonplace to see Fred’s old pickup at the school before daylight, after dark, and on weekends. He was the first one there on winter mornings to get the furnace fired up, check the radiators, and shovel the snow off of the walks if need be. He was there on ballgame nights to watch the kids play basketball or to kibitz with teachers and parents at the concession stand. After the games he would stay late and get the gym cleaned for the next day’s physical education classes.
Fred’s life literally extended from his home to the school and nowhere else. I took him to Neosho one evening to pick out some ceiling fans that our PTA had agreed to purchase for the classrooms. Fred was like the proverbial kid in the candy store as he stumbled through the Wal-Mart looking at what the store had to offer. He told me that it had been over ten years since he had been to Neosho – a trip of twenty miles!
Fred was a guy who got things done, and the bureaucracy be damned! One winter he decided that he could do a better job of keeping snow off of the walks if he had a blade for the school’s lawnmower – so he went to town and bought one out of his own pocket. It took me two monthly school board meetings to get him reimbursed, even though he didn’t care whether he got his money back or not.
Political correctness wasn’t his strong suit either. One female teacher got on his nerves by asking him to move her large, wooden teacher’s desk on multiple occasions when she took the notion to rearrange her classroom. Fred decided that his back was suffering due to her menstrual cycle, and when the teacher showed up at work one Monday morning she found that a sturdy set of wheels had been attached to the legs of her mammoth desk!
Fred wasn’t having a good day unless he got the school cooks cranked up over something and then left me to handle the mess. He had lots of opinions on what to cook and how to cook. I can still hear him going off about the bland green beans - and why didn’t they at least throw in some bacon or something for flavoring!
He and the school secretary, Billie Allman, were dear friends and had been for years, yet it was common for them to fuss at one another like an old married couple. Fortunately, they shared enough mutual respect to keep the situation amicable – and often funny. I remember well the age jokes that circulated around the office as each became eligible to join AARP. There were also times, however, when I felt like I was their incompetent son charged with keeping the family together.
Fred saw each of his two daughters, Becky and Debbie, graduate from college and go on to become teachers in our local school district – though at different schools. He was proud of his girls, but probably didn’t tell them that often enough. Cussing and stomping were his primary means of communication, both infinitely easier than expressing pride and affection. But the pride was there – they knew it and so did I.
But Fred Blue was far more than cussing and stomping. He was a concerned human being and a very good friend. I was aware of several times when he came to the office and paid the arrears on some kid’s lunch or milk bill. If the parents were good people who were suffering hard times, Fred, who wasn’t rich but also wasn’t wanting for anything, would step in and pick up the slack. One day when I was upset about something, he pushed me into my office and asked me very quietly if I needed some money. I can’t remember now what my malfunction was, but it wasn’t money. But God love Fred for being ready to bail me out!
Fred moved in with his neighbor, a widow named Leatha, while I was still with the Noel School. She was a good woman who followed him to school and took a job as his assistant custodian. Leatha probably wasn’t any better at keeping him in check than the rest of us, but we all felt good knowing that Fred had someone in his life who loved him and was around to help take care of him.
I left the Noel School in the fall of 1989. It was just a few months later that Fred was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given six months to live. One of the first things that he did on receiving that news was to marry Leatha so that she would be eligible to draw on his social security. I made several trips to their home in Noel to visit with him during that time, and regardless of how he felt, he always seemed happy that I was there, and enjoyed telling and listening to old tales about life at the Noel School. He wasn’t happy about the end of his life drawing near, but he and I both knew that he had lived it on his terms without any major regrets.
Leatha phoned me late one evening and told me that Fred had passed away in the ambulance enroute to the hospital. His funeral was well attended and very emotional. Many of the school staff and other old friends of Fred’s stood on the funeral home lawn after the service telling Fred stories. We all knew that an important person in our lives had gone on.
That funeral was nearly twenty years ago, and there is seldom a week that goes by when my thoughts aren’t drawn to Fred Blue for some reason or another. He was a very good friend.