Thomas Long, Jr.’s role in the typical Gold Hill Elementary School program involves setting the room back up for lunch or dismissal. Wednesday’s was no typical program.
Long, 73, was honored during a fifth grade promotion ceremony with the first ever Courage Award at the school. An award so deserved, said lead teacher Matt Rohring, the school invented it just to give it to him.
“This is the very first one,” Rohring said. “He has been such a role model for our students. They do recognize how much he’s overcome.”
Long began as custodian at the school four years ago. Another custodian works the latter half of each school day and a team comes to clean at night, but Long is the lone worker who arrives before students get there and doesn’t leave until they have, too. Which means lunch duty. Which means bathroom duty.
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Anything from a kindergartner getting sick to sweeping up after a formal program for parents and rising middle-schoolers, he gets the call.
“There’s still work to be done,” Long said just after receiving his award.
He is happy to do it. Two years ago, Long got a diagnosis of jaw cancer. He had 35 radiation and seven chemotherapy treatments. He maxed out on how many he could take. Which made the news that much sweeter two months ago, when doctors told him he was cancer free.
“I jumped out of the doctor’s chair when he told me,” Long said.
Long gets emotional, if matter-of-fact, about it. How did he beat it?
“Wanting to live,” Long said.
How long he plans on working, summers and all?
“As long as I ain’t dead.”
But, he admits, there were times he struggled with the tests and treatments.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Long said. “But to have the support of these people. They’ve been better than family to me. I love them all.”
Students and staff mean the world to Long. On Wednesday they did what they could to let him know they felt the same. First with an unprecedented award. Then, on a district half day with morning dismissal, with a break from having to set up for lunch.
Staff at the school recognized hundreds of fifth-graders at the program. Students with perfect attendance, high test scores, club participation. Rohring said student achievement is a big deal at Gold Hill, as at most any school. But so are life lessons that aren’t in textbooks. Lessons just as important, and from at least one staff member, as readily learned.
“He’s the epitome of perseverance,” Rohring said. “Our students see, if he can make it through what he’s had to deal with, there’s nothing they can’t do.”