James Perry

James Perry, a maintenance worker at Catonsville High for more than 40 years, is greeted by family, friends and faculty during a surprise ceremony in his honor at the school June 6. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / June 6, 2012)

About an hour after students filed out of Catonsville High School following the penultimate day of exams on June 6, a voice came over the school's public address system.

"Mr. Perry, please report to the cafeteria. Mr. James Perry, please report to the cafeteria."

The school's principal, Deborah Bittner, escorted Perry to the cafeteria where more than 130 of his friends, family and co-workers had gathered. When the Baltimore City resident, a maintenance worker at the school for the last 40 years, entered shortly before noon, the crowd gave him a warm ovation and he flashed his familiar smile.

Perry, a native of Virginia, moved to Baltimore in 1962. He started working at the school on Bloomsbury Avenue about 10 years later.

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At age 31, Perry was paid $2.42 an hour for duties that ranged from changing the combination of each locker after school let out for the summer to filling the coal-burning furnace a half dozen times a day in the winter.

In the 1970s, Perry stayed at the school overnight during a blizzard so he could shovel coal into the burner, according to a release from the school.

"It was hard work, but it didn't bother me a bit," Perry said of shoveling the coal.

Over the next 40 years, Perry developed an intimate knowledge of the building that Bittner said no one else could match.

During last week's ceremony, Bittner told the crowd that Perry's knowledge of the building was an invaluable resource as the school underwent renovations.

"He would let me know when things needed to be done, where things were at because the building was brand new to me," the fifth-year principal said after the ceremony. "He was always here. In fact, they had to make him take days off to use up some of his sick leave.

"You always knew he would be here, and he can be counted on," Bittner said. "He's a genuinely wonderful person."

Asked about his perseverance to keep working, Perry said with a laugh, "I like money in my pocket. If I don't work, I don't get money."

About a half dozen people spoke about what Perry has meant to the school, many mentioning his positive attitude, diligent work and the warm smile that accompanied his greetings.

Perry said he was surprised by the celebration.

"It's just a day's work when I come to work," said Perry after the ceremony.

Two years ago, Bryan Epps became the fifth chief custodian to whom Perry would report.

"I'll show you the ropes. Come with me. I'll show you," Epps recalled Perry telling him on one of his first days on the job.

As Epps learned the ropes, plumbers and electricians would bypass him and speak with Perry, Epps recalled with a laugh.

Bittner said that Perry's hard work, warm smile and "quiet confidence" commanded respect from everyone.

Jim Wharton, a music teacher at Catonsville High, attended last week's ceremony wearing an uncharacteristic button down shirt and tie.