A Job Well Done

Favorite Of Many Says Goodbye To Waterman

Posted: May 31, 2014

Jennifer Wright, a teacher at Waterman Elementary School, hands custodian Don Burgess a fishing outfit at his retirement party at the school earlier this month. Burgess, 72, is retiring after 38 years. (Photos by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Don Burgess, custodian at Waterman Elementary School, talks with faculty, staff, and friends during his retirement party at the school earlier this month. Burgess plans to coach Little League baseball and kids’ basketball. He’s also hoping to do a lot of traveling.

HARRISONBURG — Ask anyone at Waterman Elementary School, or the many former students who walked its halls years ago, about Don Burgess, and the name is sure to be met with a smile.

Burgess, 72, is perhaps Harrisonburg’s most well-known custodian. This year, his 38th at Waterman, will be his last, much to the disappointment of his fellow staff and faculty members who see him as a good friend, role model for children and even as a second father.

“Don’s one of those people that makes you feel comfortable right away,” said Jeremy Weaver, Waterman’s principal. “He’ll do anything for you to help you out, and especially if it means he’s helping a kid out. He’s never been one to say ‘that’s not my job,’ he’s always been one to say, ‘whatever I can do to help.’”

At a retirement party earlier this month, many current and retired Waterman teachers and staff shared funny and emotional stories about how Burgess has always brightened their days, asked about children and parents who were sick and genuinely cared about everyone in the school.

Many people who have worked with Burgess for years said that he connects with kids on their level, to make them feel important. He talks to them about sports, dances with them, remembers their names. People who went to Waterman decades ago still remember him and say hello when they see him around town.

“That make me feel good,” he said. “And what really make me feel good, they come back, they come by and they holler at me, ‘Mr. Burgess, how you doing?’ and that make me feel good. One thing’s for sure, when you do right, you don’t have no guilty conscience, and I think I did my job well in 38 years here.”

Jyl Gamble, who retired as a guidance counselor in 2008, said her kids, now adults, still talk about Burgess from when they were students at Waterman.

Patty Baer, who teaches English as a second language at Waterman, refers to Burgess as her “work dad,” because he watches out for her. When she went to Maryland to attend her mother’s funeral, she was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see that Burgess had made the trip, too, to support her.

“That meant the world to me, to see his face that day,” she said. “That just speaks to the heart, he’s just got such a caring heart. He cares about the kids, encourages them, and wants them to do their best.”

Burgess has big plans for retirement.

He’s a sports fan — his son, Don, is the coach of Bridgewater College’s basketball team — and plans to coach Little League baseball and kids’ basketball. He’s also hoping to do a lot of traveling. He and his wife, Cindy, hope to travel to Hawaii and Alaska.

When he goes home from work on June 30, it will be his last day as a custodian. But it won’t be the last the school will see of him, he said. He’ll be back to visit.

“There’s no way we can ever replace Don,” Weaver said. “I think Don’ll be one of those individuals that, he’ll always be welcome back at Waterman, anytime, and I’m sure he’ll be stop on by and check on us once in a while to make sure we’re doing all the right stuff.”

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or kcloos@dnronline.com

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