Prentice Robinson has been at Stratford Academy since dirt, even though dirt is never around for very long on his watch.
For 43 years, he has swept it out the door, vacuumed it from the carpet, mopped it off the floors and dusted it away in the corners.
He has changed light bulbs, painted lockers and scraped gum from under the desks of three generations of Stratford students. He holds the school record for searching through the cafeteria’s garbage cans to find retainers left on lunch trays.
You might say he has done everything except drive a school bus. But he did that for 25 years, too. He is familiar with almost every inch of the 183,800 square feet of buildings at the 114-acre campus on Peake Road.
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Grady Smith, the school’s athletic director emeritus, calls him the “mayor of Stratford.’’
Custodians can be invisible people. They do their jobs in the shadows and broom closets, often unnoticed and unappreciated by those they serve.
Not Prentice Robinson. It’s not easy to toil in the background when you’re 6-foot-4 and as big as a bear.
He is a gentle giant, friendly and soft-spoken. He is as beloved as anyone who has ever worked at the private school, which opened in 1960 in Overlook Mansion on Coleman Hill (now the Woodruff House).
The classes of 1999 and 2012 dedicated the school’s yearbook to him. When senior Alexis Adams recently applied to the University of Georgia, she wrote about her friendship with Prentice as one of her essay questions.
“He is always positive, says hello and makes me smile,’’ she said. “He is one of my best friends.’’
Prentice is so popular with the 944 students in K-3 through the 12th grade, they all could be referred to as “apprentices.”
“He has been a friendly face to thousands of people,’’ said Mark Farriba, who was a high school student when Prentice was hired in 1972 and is now the school’s athletic director and head football coach. “He has never been the guy who waited to see how you were going to be before he decided how he was going to be. He will speak to you, reach out to you and be your friend.’’
“He is Stratford,’’ said upper school math teacher Griff Ethridge, who has worked with Prentice for 42 of those 43 years. “When he is around, he makes the rest of us happy. We love him and miss him when he is not here.’’
Prentice, 68, has been absent a lot lately. He was hospitalized in November with a variety of health issues. He visits the doctor again Thursday and hopes to get a timetable on when he can return to work.
He grew up in the Unionville neighborhood. He was one of nine children. His mother cleaned homes for $15 a week. He had to quit school after the eighth grade.
He spent two years working at the Stratford campus on Bond Street before the new academy opened in fall 1974.
For more than two decades, he drove a bus for the Bibb County schools. He would pick up students at Lake Wildwood every morning before clocking in at Stratford. He would leave for his afternoon bus route, then return to finish his janitorial duties.
He is a longtime fixture at the school’s athletic events, well-known and well-respected by even the opponent’s players, fans and coaches.
The 1996 Ford Ranger he uses to haul trash is an icon on campus. So is the storage building that houses the school’s physical plant. It started as a shed, so it became known as Prentice’s “shedquarters.’’
His favorite part of the job is his relationship with the students. He likes to tell the story of a kindergarten student who didn’t want to attend school because he said he didn’t have any friends.
“I saw him crying one day, and I told him there was no need to cry,’’ Prentice said. “I told him I was his friend and if he needed somebody to talk with to come see me. When kids see me at the mall, they break away from their mamas and come running.’’
“He is like a movie star,’’ said his sister Betty.
HELPING FOREST WHITAKER
Actually, he is a movie star.
In the summer of 2012, drama teacher Sylvia Haynie got a phone call from her son, Michael, a 2004 Stratford graduate who is now an actor in New York.
One of Michael’s former classmates at New York University was working as a personal assistant to Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, who was set to begin filming “The Butler.’’ The movie is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House under eight U.S. presidents.
Allen’s character is named Cecil Gaines, played by Whitaker. His wife, Gloria, was played by Oprah Winfrey. In the movie, Gaines recounts how he grew up the son of a sharecropper on a cotton plantation in Macon.
To study the dialect, Whitaker asked his assistant to help find an authentic African-American voice from the South. The assistant called his friend from Georgia.
“After Michael listened to the description of the character, he said he knew the perfect person,’’ Sylvia said.
Prentice agreed to help, especially when he learned Oprah’s role in the movie. He and Sylvia began recording audio tapes and sending them to New York. During the first couple of sessions, Prentice’s answers were short and to the point.
“I realized I needed to interview him while he was doing his work, to make him more comfortable,’’ Sylvia said. “It was during the summer, and there were no students at the school. I sat on the floor of the locker bay while Prentice was painting the lockers. I just said, ‘Prentice, what are you doing today?’ And I never had to say another word.
“He talked about how much he loves this school and loves these children,’’ she said. “He believes what he does is important, and that he is loved. He talked about every detail, about how he needed to make those lockers look nice. Some people might have said, ‘Look at these kids, writing on the lockers or leaving trash in there.’ Instead, he valued what he did.
“And he knows we value what he does, even the smallest things.’’
Later, they were sent the script. When Prentice struggled with the words, Sylvia would read each line and he would repeat it. Some of the language was crude and it made him uncomfortable. But he cooperated.
They went to see the movie together when it was released in August 2013.
“If you watch the movie,’’ Sylvia said, “you hear Prentice.’’
Her only disappointment is that she has never heard Whitaker publicly acknowledge the help he received. Prentice was sent an autographed copy of the movie’s soundtrack but was not financially compensated. He is not listed in the film’s credits.
“But he felt like he contributed,’’ Sylvia said. “His assistant told me that every morning, when Forest Whitaker was in makeup, he would sit in his chair and say, ‘Let’s listen to Prentice.’ He would put on the headphones and listen to Prentice talk about painting lockers.’’
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