A week before the start of the school year, Prentice Robinson walked into the front office at Stratford Academy and announced he was retiring.
It was one of those days everyone knew was coming but hoped never would arrive. Prentice had been a custodian at the school for 47 years and had been hinting about retirement for some time. At age 72, his health had been declining and his body had slowed.
There were plenty of tears when he turned in his keys. He was as beloved as anyone who has ever worked at the school. He was a soft-spoken man whose career spanned four generations, seven headmasters, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students.
The senior classes of 1999 and 2012 dedicated the school’s yearbook to him. Grady Smith, the school’s athletic director emeritus, once called him the “mayor of Stratford.’’
School officials immediately began making plans for a way to honor Prentice for his years of dedicated service at homecoming on Oct. 19. That night, there was a celebration before the game, and Prentice served as an honorary captain for the football team. He went to midfield for the coin toss wearing No. 78 — a number with no real significance except it was the largest jersey the coaches could find.
Eight days later, Prentice died at his home. The grief that enveloped the entire school was coupled with a deep regret that this man who had worked so hard for so long had such little time to enjoy his retirement.
The memorial service was held in the school’s gymnasium on Nov. 3. Appropriately enough, it was two days after All Saints Day, because Prentice was a saint if there ever was one.
He was cheerful and unselfish, always doing for other people. He never had any enemies because he was too busy making friends. He had a nickname for almost everyone, and he made you feel better just by being around him.
At the memorial service, Dr. Bob Veto, Stratford’s head of school, announced the cafeteria will be named in honor of Prentice. It was a fitting memorial to the gentle spirit who swept its floor, vacuumed the carpet and was forever searching through the trash cans for lost retainers, car keys and cell phones students left on their lunch trays. Prentice was “dumpster diving” before dumpster diving was cool.
Custodians can be “invisible people.” They get lost in the back hallways and storage closets, doing thankless tasks like changing lightbulbs and scraping gum from underneath desks.
But there was no underappreciating Prentice. He was a fixture in the cafeteria, at the football stadium and in the corner of the gym. He had places you could expect to find him … and a couple more where he was known to stow away and seek solitude.
His “shedquarters’’ — a storage shed that houses the school’s physical plant — and the 1996 Ford Ranger pick-up he used to haul garbage are both institutions on campus. The truck was one of many vehicles he drove for the school. Smith laughed when he recalled the brown conversion van Prentice once used, with a license plate on the front that read: “Love Machine.’’
When he had younger legs, he could do almost anything — and usually did. He picked up the school’s mail at the post office, cut the grass and cleaned the bleachers at the stadium after football games. He helped plant many of the trees along the outfield fence at the softball field.
He kept two large key chains, and he could tell you the keyhole where every one of them fit. For two decades, he drove a school bus for the Bibb County public schools, picking up students at Lake Wildwood in the morning and dropping them off in the afternoon, working his job at Stratford in between.
He inherited his strong work ethic from his mother, who cleaned homes for $15 a week while raising nine children in the Unionville neighborhood. Prentice had to quit school after the eighth grade. He began working at Stratford in 1972, when the academy was located at Overlook Mansion on Coleman Hill, which is now the Woodruff House.
My favorite Prentice story was when actor Forest Whitaker used recordings of Prentice’s voice to help him prepare for his role in a movie.
F. Michael Haynie, a 2004 Stratford graduate, is an actor in New York. In 2012, he was contacted by a friend who was serving as a personal assistant to Whitaker for the movie, “The Butler,’’ which also starred Oprah Winfrey. The film is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House under eight U.S. presidents.
The character in the film is named Cecil Gaines, who 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.
Michael told his friend he knew the “perfect person.’’ He contacted his mother, Sylvia Haynie, who is Stratford’s director of theatre, and she began interviewing Prentice while he was making his rounds with summer chores around the school.
It wasn’t just Prentice’s voice that came through in the recordings. It was his spirit. He talked about his love of the school. He found joy in the details, even in giving the lockers a fresh coat of paint.
And each day on the set, when Forest Whitaker was in make-up, he would put on headphones and listen to Prentice.
The students, faculty and families of Stratford not only listened to Prentice, they watched and learned from the example of a man who was humble and kind.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.