This week, the folks of Anniston’s First United Methodist Church said an official thank-you and adieu to Joe Ragland, the longtime head custodian.
“He knows every block and every screw in the church,” said Colleen Roberts, a 40-year member of First Methodist and an organizer of Ragland’s retirement party this past Wednesday. “He’s not just an employee. He truly is part of the place.”
When Ragland applied for the custodian’s job in 1974, he was already working full-time at one of the pipe shops in town. Rev. Woodfin Grove asked Ragland if he thought he could handle two jobs and a family.
Tending to the church that now spans almost a full city block would be a big responsibility.
Ragland said he’d give it a shot.
Soon, he was as much engrained in the church’s atmosphere as the slate on the floors or the sanctuary windows that stretch two stories toward the sky. During weddings on Saturdays, while Roberts was helping organize the nuptials, Ragland would be handling tasks behind the scenes — and going to his truck to get updates on the Alabama game to report back to her.
“I asked him, ‘Now, who’s going to help me take care of all these weddings?’” Roberts said with a chuckle. “He has been such a help over the years.”
Ragland, too, laughs quietly when he talks of his years downtown. The children in the daycare made him laugh at the unexpected, even with their messes. Hanging the greenery at Christmas marked a time of year that, typically, brought peace. The rhythm of the church, set to a quiet metronome of weddings, baptisms and funerals, has guided his life for four decades.
“I’ll miss the people so much,” he said. “You see so many people come through, so many people.
“It’s hard to leave that, really.”
His wife, Lillian, had been after him to retire for a while. He’d already retired from U.S. Foundry in 2002, and she said it was time for him to slow down.
“You know, working two jobs, all the responsibility, I guess we didn’t have so much time to spend with each other,” he said.
In the end, though, it was knee surgery that finally compelled Ragland to hand in his notice.
Church members still marvel at Ragland’s commitment to the congregation and its church home. Many times early in his tenure at First Methodist, they remarked on what church he attended. Eventually, someone pointed out that he might as well be a member of their church for the amount of time and the contributions he supplied.
Keeping a congregation happy isn’t always easy, as any church custodian or trustee knows. The air-conditioning has to be on well before services on summer Sundays. Light fixtures constantly need bulbs. Stairways have to be swept and inspected.
Ordinarily, it’s the type of role most people don’t notice until something is overlooked.
“Joe always knew what had to be done well before something was needed,” said current senior pastor Rev. Bill Brown. “He never missed a beat.”
Retirement shouldn’t produce many missed moments, either. Ragland’s list is long, and so is his wife’s.
“We’ll travel, take in some ballgames — baseball, football,” he said, ticking off his goals like a litany at sunrise. “I’ll garden in the spring, work in the yard, travel some more. Nothing much, you know.”
And there’ll be fishing on his horizon. When the weather cools off, there’s a date booked with his wife.
“Oh, yeah, we’re going fishing, that’s for sure.”
Among the gifts presented Wednesday night was a lifetime membership to the Camp Lee Fishing Club. It has one member — Ragland — and he expects to be partaking of the lake at First Methodist’s camp frequently.
Roberts, still laughing, said her husband Jim wondered how many other people would be lining up for such a deal.
“And I told him membership was easy: They just had to be custodian for 35 years. That’s all.”