THERMOPOLIS — For nearly four decades, Thermopolis students have found joy and comfort in the constants of their education — the school bell ending their day, homework, summer vacation and Joe Arnold.
Arnold is head custodian of the Hot Springs County School District 1 administration building. Students, teachers and administrators have come to know "Mr. Joe" as the constant, familiar face keeping their surroundings clean and healthy for their essential work.
"You don't stick around this long if you don't love the kids and the building," Joe said. "And I do."
‘Just Doing My Job’
For these and many other reasons, Superintendent Dustin Hunt recommended that the building Joe has been cleaning for the last several decades be named for him.
The recommendation received unanimous support from the school board and Joe's custodial peers, who were invited to attend a meeting for the announcement and openly celebrated Joe.
Joe, with sincere modesty, said he hasn't wanted any of this.
"I don't deserve this," Joe said repeatedly. "I'm just doing my job."
Nearly everyone who has ever been involved with Hot Springs County School District 1 would vehemently disagree.
Jared Jeffs, maintenance director for the district, said Joe always jokes about when he will be fired. Jeffs has made his position clear.
"The day I fire you is the day I fire myself," he said.
‘A Pillar Of Our Community’
Kimberly Jones, a secretary in the same building who has known Joe for more than 30 years, sees Joe as much more than just another amicable coworker.
"Joe is a pillar of our community. He attends every fundraiser held in our town,” Jones said. “You know him when you see him. He will be the one bidding up the popular item, paying for it, and then donating it back to be auctioned off again. He is one of the most humble people I have ever known."
Started In Rawlins
Joe Arnold started as a custodian for Carbon County School District 1 in Rawlins when he was 21. After 22 years there, he moved to Thermopolis in 1986, working at Hamilton Dome Elementary School until its closure.
He's worked in Thermopolis since.
In January 2024, it will be 60 years since Joe started working for Wyoming schools.
If he has to pick one reason why he's kept cleaning so long, it's the kids.
"I love the kids," Joe said. "I've had a lot of them over the years, and you get attached to them."
More Than A Custodian
Yet, even here he goes above and beyond.
Jones shared the secret of Mr. Joe's support for Thermopolis students.
"What most people don't know about Joe is that he helps students who aren't able to go on field trips due to financial hardship,” Jones said. “He will quietly donate money to the music or agriculture departments to pay for individual students to attend various functions.
“He buys lunch for any students, any age, when he sees them at Taco John's and even mentors a few of them that have come to know him. He provides a listening ear with some friendly, real-world advice."
Joe’s Wall Of Fame
One can see Joe's love for students in his office. Above his desk are dozens of photos and graduation announcements from current and former students. His collage stretches across two-thirds of the wall, and Joe has a story for each one.
Joe shared a story from 2008 when he saw 8-year-old twins Nicole and Kayla Gilberts in the cafeteria throwing their carrots away. He collected the rejected carrots in a bucket to give to his rabbit.
When Nicole learned this, she raced to every classroom to tell her peers that everyone could throw their carrots into the bucket for Mr. Joe's rabbit.
"That got me in trouble," Joe chuckled.
Tragically, Nicole Marie Gilbert died later that year. As he recalled the story, Joe tugs on a blue wristband he’s wearing. On the wristband are the letters "NMG," for Nicole Marie Gilbert.
"I'm still grieving," he said through his tears.
The tragedy spurred Joe into action. He wanted to do something to help her sister Kayla. Several years later, when Kayla graduated, Joe presented her with money he had been saving every week since Nicole's passing for Kayla's college education.
This was one of many stories Mr. Joe said has touched his heart and kept him working for the school district.
Jeffs is ordering the letters of Joe's name to be placed on the side of the Joe Arnold Central Administration Building. There will be no official ceremony or celebration once the building bears his name, just how he'd like it.
"That means more work for you," Joe said to Jeffs.
"It's something I'm more than happy to do," Jeff replied.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.