Clark, 65, says he loves going to work everyday and is "living the American dream"

By Cathy Free
February 12, 2015 08:35 PM
Advertisement
Kylie Copeland

Twenty-six years ago, Charles Clark took a custodial job at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas, thinking it would be a temporary stop until he found something better.

But just weeks into the job, while pushing a mop through the halls and saying hello to the students, he changed his mind.

“I learned right away that working here was a gift,” says Clark, now 65 and head custodian at the school. “I’d found a place in life where I could make a real difference.”

And he has.

Now, when Trinity’s 2,400 students are asked to name the most influential person at their school, Clark’s name is always at the top of the list.

The affable custodian has mentored hundreds of teens in need of a father figure; taken students into his home when family disputes left them with no place to stay; and purchased shoes, food and even prom outfits for kids in need.

“Without Mr. Clark here at Trinity, I feel like a lot of kids he’s helped may have dropped out,” says Emilyn Stebbing, 16. “Mr. Clark is more than just a janitor, he’s an inspiration.”

School counselors and administrators sometimes even ask Clark to intervene when they learn about a student having personal problems.

“The kids relate to him because he’s genuine,” Trinity principal Mike Harris says. “If somebody is hanging their head low, he’s the first to step in and see what he can do to lift their spirits.”

Clark says he just likes helping kids.

“A lot of our students come from single-family homes and don’t know what it’s like to have a dad in their lives,” he says.

“I’m not going to analyze their situations – I’ll leave that to somebody else,” he says. “But if a child is hungry or a child needs a kind word, I’m going to take care of that child right now. It’s just the right thing to do.”

He Learned It from Dad

Being there for others is something Clark learned from his own father, Willie Clark, a barber, and his mother, Julia Clark, a homemaker, while growing up at the height of the civil rights struggle in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

“There were eight of us – five boys and three girls – and our house at 602 Airport Road had so much love and care in it that all of the strife and hard times outside the door didn’t matter,” he says.

“My dad recently turned 97 and he’s still my hero,” he says. “No matter what happened in our lives, he was always there for us.”

Shortly after graduating from high school in 1966, Clark moved to Dallas and attended Nationwide Business College for one year, then took a job in a chemical plant.

After marrying and raising a son and two daughters with his wife, Ellen, he worked for more than a decade as a long-haul trucker until he was hired by the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District and assigned to Trinity High in 1989.

Only a few weeks into the job, when he heard about a girl with a difficult home life, Clark decided his talents could be used for something besides putting a shine on the gymnasium floor.

“It was right before Christmas, and I knew this young lady was going to wake up Christmas morning without a single gift,” he recalls.

“So I called my wife and told her about it and she went out and got this girl some nice earrings,” he says. “And it just went on from there.”

A Box Full of Memories

Clark treasures a box of letters he keeps from students who wrote to thank him for his smiles and kind words in times of need.

“One young man told me I was the first man in his life he ever trusted,” he says. “We built a relationship, and he would live with us for a time. Now, he’s graduated from college, and we’re still in touch.”

Clark pauses, his voice breaking.

“I cry a lot when I read those letters,” he says.

Butch Anthony Sias, who once was a boy with a troubled home life and a father in prison, says there were no black teachers in 1996 when he was a student at Trinity High.

“Mr. Clark took me to ball games, he took me to dinner, but mostly, he just listened,” says Sias, 38, who now works as a furniture salesman and recently moved back to Euless. “He taught me how to be there for others, how to care about others and to always have a smiling face. He changed my life.”

Some people might think he is selling his life short to be a custodian – but not Clark.

“I’m living the American dream,” he says. “I have people who love me, I have a home and a family, and I love going to work every morning.”

More Heroes Among Us:

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine