Rick Bergum, a janitor in Covington, is a finalist in a national Janitor of the Year contest. He writes on the side, chronicling cleaning adventures in short stories starring a fictional character named “Jon E. Mopp.”
COVINGTON — Rick Bergum never dreamed of becoming a school janitor.
A scientist, maybe. Or an electrical engineer.
But he ended up joining his father’s cleaning business and now, the 51-year-old head custodian and self-made handyman at Tahoma High School cherishes the joys of his job: the satisfying jingle of a ring of keys, fresh plastic bags lining a tidy row of trash cans and, most of all, spending days with his quirky father and college-aged son, who also work part-time cleaning the school.
Bergum prefers his relative anonymity — he’s the man behind the curtain, he says — but recently he’s getting some extra attention as one of 10 finalists for national Janitor of the Year.
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Bergum never expected to be nominated for such an honor — he doesn’t even use products made by the cleaning company sponsoring the contest.
And even though he writes a blog about a fictional character named Jon E. Mopp, a clumsy aging janitor who flirts with small disasters on the job, Bergum has never sought fame.
“I just like to be behind the scenes, doing my job,” Bergum said. “I like the idea of everything works, everything runs, and no one knows why.”
Cintas, the contest’s sponsor, sorted through hundreds of nominations for the nation’s top janitor then whittled the list to 10, based on the number of people who recommended them, and what they wrote.
Bergum, nominated by his father plus five others, is the only finalist from Washington.
Online voting between now and May 1 will determine the winner, who will receive a $2,500 check, plus another $2,500 in cleaning supplies for his or her school.
Other janitors at the school said they are voting for Bergum as often as they can. Some Tahoma High teachers have told Bergum that entire classrooms of students have voted for him.
“He can do anything,” said Terry Duty, Tahoma High’s principal, who has worked with Bergum for nearly two decades. “He can fix anything. There’s never a problem that Rick doesn’t find a solution to.”
Bergum‘s personal business card testifies to his outlook on his job, and life. It reads, “Richard J. Bergum. The Does-Everything Guy. I’d know everything if I had the time.”
Bergum’s office at Tahoma High is a lair of cleaning supplies and tools: a shelf of mop heads, rows of new power belts. Hundreds of keys labeled with tags hang inside a big metal box.
Even the junk is organized. “Junk,” reads one drawer’s label. “Assorted junk,” reads another.
Call it obsessive-compulsive, but Bergum likes a clean space — a good trait for someone in his line of work. At home, only his wife’s desk is off-limits from his organizational zeal.
A few human touches can be seen in his office, too: a spray-painted broom, pictures of cartoon superheroes and a handmade sign a student group once crafted saying, “We ‘donut’ know what we would do without you.”
On a recent Thursday, special-education aide Lynn Holstein walked in his door, looking for grease to fix a jammed paper shredder.
Bergum rummaged in a tall filing cabinet and emerged with a spray can. If that doesn’t work, he told her, take the shredder back — it’s only a few months old.
“He’s just here for everybody,” Holstein said, adding she had been in Bergum’s office once before that morning asking how to order new shelves.
Bergum always carries two cellphones and a radio, which he clips to his chest each morning. Also fixed to his waist are three sets of keys, a flashlight and two Leatherman pocket tool sets.
He never knows what the day will bring.
“You get to see a little bit of everything,” Bergum said, describing a few incidents he could have lived without involving vomit and clogged toilets.
But Bergum manages to have fun, too. Once, when setting up for a school math event, Bergum color-coded the blue and yellow chairs to show addition, subtraction, multiplication and division symbols.
“I don’t think anybody saw it, but I knew it was there,” Bergum said.
A family affair
After Holstein’s visit, Bergum headed to the cafeteria, doing laps across the floor, pushing a dry mop.
The mop corralled an empty fruit cup, broken potato chips, a straw wrapper and crushed popcorn into a pile near a trash can — a relatively small load, he said, not like the mounds of trash left on floors after testing or the day before a break from school, when the students are wound up.
Jim Bergum, 72, whizzed around behind his son on a ride-on floor cleaner, stealing bites from a sandwich he had packed for lunch and beeping the horn when he wanted his son’s attention.
The two sometimes joke that they are brothers. The elder Bergum is taller, but they are balding in the same way.
Jim Bergum, too, has made a career of cleaning. After being laid off from a job as an electronic technician at Boeing decades ago, he rented a carpet cleaner to supplement a friend’s window-cleaning business — a move that ended up marking the start of the family residential and office-cleaning business his son ultimately joined.
When Bergum left about 17 years ago for the Tahoma School District, his father eventually followed, selling his business. Devon, Bergum’s son, works as a fill-in custodian at the school, too, which helps pay his way through a computer-science program at Renton Technical College.
Bergum sometimes thinks about the janitor at his middle school in Covington, who would make him and his friends laugh in the lunchroom. They even had a nickname for him, chosen for his clanking keys: “Wad of Metal Man.”
“I look back and I’m like, ‘Now I’m that guy,’ ” he said.
After a long day, Bergum likes turning the lights off on a clean room. Everything is in its place; trash bags empty, floors clean.
“It’s like, ‘Ah, that looks good,’ ” he said.