Taking care of Owen Middle and all its students

Margaret Hurt
Special to The Black Mountain News

On paper, his job responsibilities include overall care of the school’s facilities. But the job description doesn’t nearly tell the whole story about Clarence Harper, for 30 years the custodian at Owen Middle School.

Loved by all around him, Harper retires at the end of December. He was the custodian at the school when it was Black Mountain Middle School, attended by the parents of many of the children there now.

Each morning at 7 a.m., Harper greets students as they board his bus. Half an hour later, he’s at the student drop-off zone, helping drivers and kids get through the congested area. He is visible when classes change to make sure students behave and get to their next class quickly. He sets up school and athletic events, and late at night he cleans the facilities.

On Saturdays during the town-sponsored winter youth basketball season, he’s at the school (voluntarily) to make sure the facilities are used properly. He always seems to have a smile on his face and good cheer in his voice.

The “heart of Owen Middle,” as many refer to him, Harper has been one of the longest-serving staffers there, responsible for helping shape the school environment.

In November, the Buncombe County Schools Board of Education honored him by naming the school drive after him. The sign marking the circular Clarence Harper Drive can be seen from U.S. Old Highway 70.

Harper handles his work with a commitment to excellence and a strong work ethic. But he will be most remembered for the other roles he fills around the school and the example he sets. A friend to all, he genuinely cares for others. He continually builds relationships with students and helps build a sense of ownership in the school.

“He does not shy away from asking students to speak more quietly, pick up after themselves or behave in the hallways,” school principal Heidi VonDohlen said. “With one finger raised in the air, Mr. Harper can silence 200 middle school students in the cafeteria at any time.” He reminds them, she said, to “be” the school’s three Rs - respectful, responsible and ready.

“At every class change he greets students and staff by name, gives high fives and requires excellent behavior from all,” seventh-grade math teacher Nicole Phelps said. “At ballgames and community events, he greets our families by name.”

Bailee Worley, a sixth grader, described him as caring, cool, helpful - and hilarious. When she first started at the school and would get lost in the hallways, Harper was there to help her out. “What’s up, my lady?” he’d ask her. He knows most students by name.

“I try to treat everybody equally and be a friendly face for every child who walks through the door,” said Harper, who was surprised by the tribute the school paid him. “It’s very important for students to feel welcome and feel at home here so they can learn.”

What makes Harper special “is that he is one of the most genuinely nice people on the planet,” said Caroline Ayers, a sixth-grade English teacher. “He is kind to all and consistent in his attitude and actions each day.”

The school’s front office receptionist, Traci Easterly, said Harper’s retiring is “the end of an era at Owen Middle School. It is hard to put into words what he means to this school, and it is also hard to imagine life around (here) without him. He sets an example both for students and staff with his character and work ethic. The kids love him to death.”

Often overlooked is the role he fills as the key provider of security for the school facilities. Harper locks up the building every night and is the main contact with the school district maintenance department for repairs. If an alarm goes off at night or on holidays or weekends, he and the principal respond to meet the sheriff’s deputies.

Ayers recalled her first days as a newly hired English teacher setting up her first classroom three years ago. The first person she met, Harper made her feel at home, she said. He offered to come in on Saturday to open the building for her to finish getting ready for her students.

“I was almost in tears sometimes, but I knew Mr. Harper was here working hard too, and it got me through the day,” she said.

In a letter to the Buncombe County Board of Education, the OMS Advisory Board said that “naming our main drive in (Harper’s) honor will not only honor him, but will also speak to the thousands of current and former students that remember Mr. Harper fondly as part of their middle school experience in the Swannanoa Valley.”

Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin said the name change “is so very fitting, as (Harper) represents such an outstanding resource and wonderful role model not only to students and staff, but the entire Owen school community.”

At a reception at the school honoring Harper recently, guests signed a large poster card. The words on the card spoke of the affection they hold for him. “All the money in the world,” the card said, “could never replace you.”