March 1, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Treat it like you own it

Treat it like you own it
Treat it like you own it

By Ben Sonnek- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Messer retires from SCPS buildings, grounds director position


Not counting his infancy, John Messer has spent all but nine years of his life either studying at or working for Sauk Centre Public Schools. Now, even though he retired from his buildings and grounds director position at the start of 2023, he plans to consult with the school as they prepare for their renovation.

“You always treat the place like you own it,” Messer said. “It’s your school; it’s your taxpayer dollar that built and supports it.”

So far, Messer has been satisfied with the new buildings and grounds director, Kyle Winberg, who started work at the beginning of this year.

“I think the district is in great hands,” Messer said. “Kyle’s a very, very smart young man (with) great mechanical aptitude, great people skills and very good work ethic, and you don’t find that in everybody.”

A Sauk Centre native, Messer was educated at SCPS and graduated from Sauk Centre High School in 1978; his wife and three sons have also attended SCPS. Messer returned to SCPS as a member of the custodial staff in 1987, hired by Jerry Toenies, the buildings and grounds director at the time.

“I can’t say enough about Jerry Toenies,” Messer said. “Jerry was a great guy, one of the people who was very helpful to me during my time in the district. The superintendent at the time, Dan Brooks, was a phenomenal help also.”

Originally, Messer had wanted a job in the SCPS bus garage; the transportation director was getting close to retirement, and Messer was working at John Wiese Ford and would help maintain the school buses, especially when they needed serious motor or transmission repairs. When he put his name in as a potential transportation director candidate, he was told about the custodial staff opening, and Toenies talked him into it.

Then, the school hired someone else for the transportation director position, and Messer was told by Toenies that he was in line to become the next buildings and grounds director. While it was not what Messer had in mind, he took to the task after years of training and advanced to the position in 1995 after Toenies’ retirement.

Every morning at 5:45 a.m., Messer has been the first one in the building. Being inside when it is quiet helps isolate any potential issues that need his attention.

“When you’re there all by yourself, you know what it’s supposed to sound like,” Messer said. “You listen for noises (and) pick up on little things, such as a fan unit that’s making a little more noise than it should.”

In the 35-plus years he has worked for SCPS, Messer has seen the school change in a multitude of ways. For instance, when he started with SCPS, the school was divided into two campuses: the junior and senior high at the school’s existing location and kindergarten through sixth grade at the uptown building, just west of the Sinclair Lewis Library. The latter building had been built in sections – one in 1915 and the other in 1939 – and needed to be torn down.

“I was involved on the committee that worked on getting a bond passed so we could build the new elementary,” Messer said. “A few years later, it was decided that we needed an auditorium, because there was an 850-seat auditorium that was part of the old school … People figured out pretty quickly that an auditorium was something we wanted, and we ended up with a very nice performing arts area which is one of the best in the state, as far as high schools go.”

Through the elementary school and auditorium construction, Messer got to see the schools consolidate into one location, making things easier for teachers as well as custodial staff. Then, in 2012, the school added its outdoor running track and football field.

“I know a lot of people were skeptical about that,” Messer said. “I don’t think anyone would go back now and take that away. It’s been spectacular, the track meets we’ve had, and we’ve hosted playoff games not only for our team but also for visiting teams where we’ve been a neutral site.”

The schools’ secure entrances were developed in 2019 with automatic locking and unlocking doors, and the key fob system replaced the need to carry around a multitude of keys.

“When I started working at the school, every exterior door on the building was open every day,” Messer said. “Nobody would ever think you’d have guns in a school; that was the farthest thing from your mind … Nobody needed keys to get in the building, and the doors were left unlocked until about 10 o’clock at night.”

From the maintenance standpoint, much of Messer’s work has been computerized. The school fans used to be standalone units where one would have to go and look at each gauge, and now the controls and temperatures can be accessed on a single laptop.

Another change that has affected maintenance has been the increase in summer activities. Summer has always been a busy time for custodial staff as they thoroughly clean and prepare the facilities for the next school year, but the summers now have sports camps, traveling leagues, sports practice, Kid Connection, swimming programs and more.

“The three months of the summer, we used to be able to tear the building apart and do anything almost anywhere we wanted,” Messer said. “That has really changed. The summer activities have been really taking off; great deal for the kids, it just makes our custodial job a little more difficult, trying to work around all that scheduling.”

Messer is glad to have had so many great people to work with throughout his career.

“The custodial staff have always been fantastic,” Messer said. “We’ve had great continuity; we haven’t had a lot of worker turnover, and that’s worth a lot.”

As the school prepares for its renovation project this summer, Messer is planning to return in a part-time consulting capacity to both advise the construction crew and mentor Winberg. With the renovation, Messer believes he has retired at the perfect time; now, Winberg can see the building get torn apart and put back together, and he will understand how the building works as well as the new computerized system as it gets implemented.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a brand-new car and then hand somebody the keys; rather, have them build the car and then give them the keys,” Messer said. “They’ll understand how it works.”

In retirement, Messer is also looking forward to spending more time with his 10 grandchildren, not to mention helping with maintenance at his children’s homes.

“Once people find out you’re retired, you get phone calls,” Messer said.


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