Janitor Acts as a Mentor and Guide to Young Workers

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Knox teaches philosophy of stay positive and getting the job done

By Max Sarinsky

Daniel Knox has many responsibilities as handyman of a Brooklyn public school building, from maintaining the premises to cleaning up spills and vomit. But he takes the most pride in one unofficial job duty: mentor.

According to David Pankey, a janitor at the Bed-Stuy school for over 13 years, Knox works patiently with him and the other six members of the janitorial staff to teach them new techniques and encourage a positive attitude.

“He taught me everything,” Pankey said. “He showed everybody.”

Daniel Knox, a Brooklyn Handyman, espouses a hard work ethic and a can-do attitude. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

A former janitor himself at the 1137 Herkimer St. school building (which currently houses four different schools), Knox has worked in the building for 20 years and says that the leadership role now comes naturally. “It’s my job to educate the younger guys coming in, so they won’t have it as rough as I had it,” he said. “I’m only as good as the men that I work with.”

The philosophy that Knox imparts is simple: Stay focused on getting the job done. There are many potential distractions working in a school building, but Knox reminds his colleagues not to interact with the students and instead focus on providing them the best possible learning environment. This even applies to Knox’s own nephew, a student in the building.

“He understands when I’m at work, it’s strictly business,” Knox said. “After hours, I’m Uncle Daniel again.”

Knox arrives at work at 6:30 each morning, including days when school is closed. Snow days are especially tough, he said; while teachers and students are off, the maintenance crew is responsible for shoveling the perimeter of the building. During the blizzard of 1996, he walked over three miles to work in the heavy snow due to poor driving conditions.

Nevertheless, Knox said that workers from other city agencies usually reap more praise for their snow-removal efforts. “That just comes with the territory,” he said. “We’re sort of like the unsung heroes.”

In addition to teaching a strong work ethic, Knox also encourages colleagues to consider the job a learning opportunity. He constantly enrolls himself in certification courses through 32BJ SEIU, many of which have no direct application in his job. “I have a certificate for torch operations,” he said. “I’m never going to use a torch in the school.”

Knox has also taught many of his colleagues to play chess. They play several times a week during lunch, often at a nearby park. “He’s way better than me,” Pankey noted.

Knox has been married for 13 years to his high-school sweetheart, Angela. They frequently attend movies and plays in New York, and typically visit their extended families in Brooklyn on weekends. “To put it shortly, she’s the reason for me breathing,” he said about his wife.

At 40, Knox has begun to look toward retirement. But he would consider another promotion if the opportunity presented itself. “I’m for whatever the building needs,” he said.

If Knox were to retire, he could be succeeded by someone he mentored. In addition to his coworkers, he has also helped two former students in the building to become public-school janitors. He said that he didn’t recall either of the former students when they first approached him for advice—after all, he generally avoids interaction with the children—but they remembered him well.

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