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A janitor can make a difference, and Chuck Sands proved it. He died recently, and unexpectedly, and there's been such an outpouring of grief and love from Howard County - and from the students of Centennial High School, specifically - that I just had to take a moment here to tell you a little about their head custodian.

"Mr. Chuck" was a father figure, mentor and general life encourager to hundreds of teenagers over 30 years in the Howard school system.

On a couple of Facebook groups dedicated to him since his death, students from Centennial and Glenelg high schools called him "the heart and soul" of their schools, a generous, compassionate and positive man.

"You're the only person I know who didn't seem to know what a bad day was," one of them wrote. "You taught us selflessness and dedication," wrote another. "Of all the things I learned at Centennial, the most important lessons came from outside the classroom," added another. "Thanks for teaching all of us the power & importance of unconditional kindness."

The janitor made a difference. Chuck Sands kept an eye on things, kept an eye on students. "Every time I saw him in the halls of Centennial," a girl wrote on Facebook, "he would make me smile no matter how crappy my day was."

Mr. Chuck died last month at age 54 from complications from acute pneumonia, according to Centennial's principal, Carl Perkins. "The thing that sucks about this, besides the fact that he's gone," a student wrote on Facebook, "is that he will never know all the kids who joined the i love chuck grp." But Mr. Chuck must have felt the love along the way. You don't touch the lives of that many young men and women without some coming back to you.

Last May, the Class of 2009 asked him to speak at their commencement. He accepted, and, in suit and tie, stepped to the podium in a flood of cheers and applause.

"Thank you very much, thank you very much, class. I love you too," he began. "This is without a doubt one of the highest honors anyone could receive. And me being your custodian, I say thank you. ... And for every custodian in Howard County, I say thank you to you students.

"When first asked to do this by some of our students, I was floored. I was like, 'You don't want me to do that, because you deserve such a bigger honor than that.' ... I asked Dr. Perkins, with this being your first year here at Centennial, how did you feel about it? He said, 'Give the people what they want.' ... But after I thought about it, I was like, 'We have connected, the honor is mine to do this tonight.' ...

"The wonderful, smiling faces that greet me every morning, and every day ... I'm so glad to see you, to show you guys that the love that you all have shown me I'm trying to show you back tonight.

"Seems like just yesterday, ninth grade orientation, I watched you girls and guys come to school, not knowing where you were going, your classrooms, and the new experience of high school. Trying to open all those lockers that just wouldn't open, they're so old. After I had worked on them all summer! I know they open, OK?

"When I first chose to come to Centennial, I knew what I had in mind as far as being a building supervisor and connecting with the students. This is one of the first things I believe you have to do to have a respectable, clean and safe go at life - a clean school that represents your education and people who come by and see it. We have done very well in that aspect.

"I'd like to thank all the parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles because I have sort of borrowed their children or linked with them over the last four years because they have enriched my life so. I, like you, have watched all the games year after year, the wins and the losses, winning titles and championships, raising all those banners on the wall or on the flag pole. Such great pleasure.

"The great plays that the kids put on all the time and the awesome dance programs. Such long, hard practices they give - but, well, enjoyable. ... One of my most satisfactory jobs, though, is providing the community with a school campus that is safe and clean. During the summertime, most of the time we spend here cleaning the school from top to bottom. And as you noticed last year, the school was freshly painted, you had new bleachers, you had new scoreboards. ... I'm so glad you guys got to enjoy that before you left, you deserve everything you can get ...

"Class of 2009, you have done quite well for yourself. Many of you will go off to your colleges, join the military service ... follow your dreams.

"One of my least favorite things, though, is saying goodbye to you all. I take great pride in trying to know each and every one of my students, but sometimes faces and names skip me. I check my mailbox on the regular so I see a lot of your letters. I cherish your letters. Now, Mr. Brandon Jacobs wrote me a letter and I was so touched by it because I was like, 'I know a lot of people by their first name but not their last.' But I sought him out and I gave him a hug. And I appreciate that, son."

Mr. Chuck paused here, according to the transcriber of his speech.

"All right," he then went on. "Class of 2009, my Centennial Eagles, I say goodbye. But it's not goodbye forever. I will see you later, at the next homecoming, or any time you're in the neighborhood and want to stop by. Centennial is your home. Just check into the front office first."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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