A long time ago…more years than I even want to count, I came to meet a man who would prove to be among the most influential people of my entire life. We met when I was 10 years old, and he was in his late 50s. I was in 5th grade, and he was the school janitor.
Johnny was a little man. Barely taller than the students. He was of Portuguese descent and spoke with a stutter. Johnny always wore a white shirt with dark gray janitor pants. And of course, the obligatory plethora of keys on that retracting wire clipped to his belt. Johnny’s skin was dark brown and leathery, reflecting a life spent working outdoors. His hair was gray with that little dab of Brylcreem to keep it in place. His hands were rough and calloused. His heart, big and tender.
Johnny was a single man who lived with his sister. Based on this background, people today might question his character and intentions on being around school kids. How sad that society has devolved this way.
Every day at lunch, Johnny would mingle with the kids. You could always count on Johnny to have a pocket loaded with loose change to help out those of us who were a little short on getting a little something extra at lunch. This was his purpose in carrying several dollars in change, which probably weighed as much as he did. Johnny loved to talk to us. He loved to listen to us.
He just loved us.
Johnny had a heart of gold. None of us could really appreciate the fullness of his love for us until we matured and gave it some thought. I don’t know if any of my classmates from that school have thought of him much over the years, but I sure have.
Among Johnny’s special qualities, he would somehow get a hold of the baseball schedules of each of the boys in the school. It wasn’t a large school, but there were enough of us that pretty much every night of the week, at least one of us had a baseball game at the Little League field across town. Having our schedules, Johnny would attend every one of the games each of us played. If my team was playing against a classmate, he would sit half the game on my side, and half the game on the other side. No matter where he sat, we knew he was rooting for us. We also knew he was going to be there. In fact, I still remember warming up in the field while keeping one eye on the stands to see when he arrived so I could see his face light up and return his wave.
Because I transferred to the school just before my 5th grade year, I only got to know him for two years. The year after I left, when I was in 7th grade, Johnny passed away. When my mom took me to his funeral, I was approached by the principal of my former school. He asked me if I would like to read a passage to those in attendance during the service.
Even then, I knew it was a precious honor.
Throughout my adult years, I’ve often thought of Johnny and the special inspiration I gained from my brief, but profound relationship with, and respect for him. His impact in my life as someone who understood the power of loving children in a completely wholesome and sacrificial manner has echoed in my heart all these years. His example, and knowing what it meant to me, has inspired me to do everything I could to take interest in the lives of children I’ve come to know. You see, there is something particularly powerful in loving someone voluntarily. In other words, we weren’t related, so sacrificial and unconditional love was not to be expected from him. But it was plain to even my still underdeveloped mind that he genuinely cared about us when he didn’t have to.
Johnny made a difference in my life. I can only hope that his example and impact on my life can somehow be passed on to even one child I’ve come to know, or will come to know in my life. Maybe one day, one of those kids will be inspired to invest themselves into the lives of children who need some voluntary love.
Johnny has been gone for decades. However, I believe his genuine love and selflessness in caring about us lives today through the lives he touched in such simple, yet profound ways.
What will you do to make a difference? It might be as simple as a pocket full of change or going to a Little League game that will make an impact…for generations.
UPDATE: I wanted to share with you some comments I received on Facebook about this post from people who knew Johnny at the same time I did. I thought their comments were definitely worth sharing.
Jamie: “Johnny was the BEST MAN whom ever lived!! I so agree with you he touched my life as well, I think about him everyday WWJD too!”
Rob: “Corey…thanks for that beautiful tribute to Johnny Stevens. He was a very good man who served with quiet dignity. What a great example he provided for us and, as you said, most of us overlooked it until years later. Thanks again!”
Scott: “My kindergarten teacher Kathy Thrower retired after all 38 years.I was in her first class as a teacher. She followed the class thru HS. They named the Gym after Johnny.”