“It is a dirty, grimy job”: Carl Miller’s Custodian Journey


Morgan Miller

Custodian Carl Miller was celebrated on March 17 for 45 years of service to Portland Public Schools.

Spilled juice, dusty chairs, grimy countertops and gum wrapper-covered floors. Our collective presence as students is marked by the messes we make everyday and the germs we leave behind. Among over 1,500 high school students, rarely noticed is the true absence of messes. At times during the day, you might see Carl Miller, a man wearing a flannel button down shirt and blue jeans with a ring of keys that jingles as he walks. Looking through a pair of aviator glasses, he quietly travels through school hallways everyday, wiping down messes and picking up gum wrappers. 

Miller started his custodian journey when he was 16 years old. He was born in Fontana, California but moved to Oregon before the third grade. Miller went to Grant High School in 1973, where a counselor got him into contact with the school’s custodial department. 

“She thought it’d be good to do some [work] after school, so I worked over at Fernwood by Grant for a couple hours,” said Miller. 

Miller also attended Washington High School (WHS), where he also worked over the summer as a student helper. The same counselor hooked him up to a cedar program, where he cleared brush and logging trails in Mt. Hood National Forest.

 “I thought I’d like to be a ranger,” Miller said.

For the next few years, Miller moved between Oregon and California, installing drywall and framing houses. Eventually, Miller went to dinner with a former colleague from WHS who suggested he apply for a custodial job in Portland.

“I thought, well, I don’t have no job right now, so I’ll do it, and that’s how I got back on [to custodial work] in 1978,” said Miller.

 He proceeded to work at numerous schools in Portland, including Ida B. Wells High School and Hayhurst Elementary School. At Hosford Middle School, Miller had to do a lot of work himself because another custodian was on vacation, and there was no one else to help. 

“I had to work a lot of extra hours to get the building done,” said Miller, “The principal was new and he kept checking up on me and calling a supervisor, and telling ‘em I’m not gonna get done.” 

Miller said he fairly enjoys the work of a custodian until there’s a lot of unnecessary pressure. However, he’s capable of taking on the physical grit required of the profession.

“It’s a physical job. You have to be able to carry fifty pounds upstairs and downstairs,” he said, “You have to be in a pretty fair shape to do a lot of the work.”

Miller definitely likes the new Lincoln building better because there are more conveniences built in for the job of a custodian. 

“There’s a lot less things we have to do. The lights come on automatically, and there’s elevators in this one […] the machines and things we got now make it a lot easier too,” said Miller.

Miller recounts first working at Lincoln 25-30 years ago. 

“When I first started over there at Lincoln in the 90s, we were still having to use just a mop and bucket for mopping the halls,” he said.

Miller acknowledges why a person might not be drawn to the idea of a career as a custodian.

“It is a dirty, grimy job. A lot of people just don’t want to do it for that long. If you decide to do it, you’re always looking for a better job,” said Miller. 

Miller has had his fair share of crazy interactions with other supervisors and custodians. 

“I’ve had a custodian raging at me saying ‘I’m not doing this,’ and throwing keys and a chair at me, things like that,” said Miller. 

When asked about retirement and travel, Miller looks forward to taking time for himself. 

“I watch those travel shows a lot…maybe over there in Italy or the Mediterranean someplace,” he said.

Miller discussed custodial benefits, including a retirement fund and plenty of vacation time.

“I can probably take off a whole month or more…to go to Italy!” said Miller.