“What do you know that’s good?” she’d ask.
“Well,” the school janitor would reply, “I know you.”
On Monday, the first day of school after the big tornado outbreak of 2011, Smith just stopped by. And cried.
Bill Lipscomb won’t be coming back.
Welcome to the new, post-storm Alexandria Elementary School, a school that is bent and cracked like a thousand trees in Calhoun County -– but a school that’s still alive.
Lipscomb, who started as a custodian here before most students were born, was killed in the storm. So was Spencer Motes, a parent of one of the students. And a thousand little things here are now broken. Bones. Hearts. A pencil sharpener that Lipscomb, were he here, would come to repair.
The governor ordered flags flown at half staff after the storm outbreak, which killed more than 240 people in Alabama. At Alexandria, the flags seemed to hang a little lower than that, the tattered corners of the state banner flopping around at shoulder-height. The action on the playground was eerily slow and quiet, like an anthill kicked in the middle of winter.
Over lunch at the big, polished table in Principal Sarah McClure’s office, teachers wept as they recalled “Mr. Bill,” the janitor who, like so many men of a certain age, seemed to know how to repair anything, how to do anything.
“He teased me because I planted green beans for my class in August,” said second-grade teacher Shannon Finley. “He said it’s not really time to plant those.”
Bill Lipscomb, a former steelworker, came to work at Alexandria after Gulf States Steel shut down. Along the banks of the Coosa, friends and co-workers said, he had a formidable reputation as a fisherman. At heart, he was a woodworker, making most of his living as a cabinetmaker. He worked four hours a day at Alexandria, so he could get health insurance.
In the cold parlance of school budgets, that makes Lipscomb half a custodian. But teachers say that he was much, much more.
“With the staffing situation now, you need more than a janitor,” said principal McClure. “You need somebody who can fix things, somebody who can solve a thousand problems.”
The school is filled with things Lipscomb built, and he was known for his ability to underpromise and overdeliver. When Smith mentioned that her closets were getting too cramped, Lipscomb promised to build shelves for her. She wanted to know when, so she could clean out the closet for him. He said he’d get around to it eventually.
Then one day, there were shelves. Oak shelves, stained, a craftsman’s work. Lipscomb had emptied the closet, installed the shelves, and re-stacked the shelves with the stuff from the closet.
“I don’t like to do things halfway,” he told Smith.
He was like that even the day he died, teachers here say.
A thunderstorm blew through Lipscomb’s neighborhood in Webster’s Chapel hours before the tornado arrived. Lipscomb was out there helping neighbors, clearing brush from that earlier storm. He was the one who spread the news that, in addition to power outages, water service would be down.
“A lot of people left the neighborhood and went somewhere safer after they heard there would be no water,” Finley said. “He probably saved a bunch of people’s lives.”
‘He was protecting us’
Ask Finley how her second-graders are taking the news of Lipscomb’s death, and she’ll take you down to her classroom. The students have been writing essays.
“I saw a woman carrying a baby on her porch and her house was damaged,” Anna-Grace Bailey read from her journal.
“I almost tinkled my pants,” Cassady Goode said, to a chorus of laughs. Then, more seriously: “I heard that Mr. Bill and his wife died, but they died in each other’s arms.”
Teachers have whole stacks of them now. Essays about trees snapped like toothpicks, about attending family friends’ funerals, about hiding next to the water heater at mamaw’s house.
“And one more thing,” Jaden New read to the class. “Dustin Rodgers broke his arm and both legs.”
Dustin Rodgers was in the second-grade classroom next door, in a wheelchair and three casts. His teacher, Jamie Brown, said he’s the prince of the school now, pushed from classroom to classroom, spoken of reverently. But it came at an awful price.
Dustin, his big sister Brittany and his dad, Chris, all crowded into the bathtub when the storm approached their home on Peek’s Hill Road. Chris put a mattress on top of his kids.
“My dad was on top of the mattress,” Brittany said. “He was protecting us.”
Brittany blacked out after that. After the storm passed, she and Dustin were 100 yards from the house. Chris was suspended from a tree, at least one of his vertebra broken. He managed to dial 911 anyway.
At the hospital, the doctors wanted to treat Dustin first.
“I told them to do my dad first because he was worse off than me,” he said. “The man (the doctor) just started crying.”
The Rodgers family was in good spirits Monday, Brown said, because the doctors had scratched Chris’s leg, and Chris was pretty sure he could feel it. Doctors aren’t sure when Chris will walk again, Brown said.
Brittany and Dustin each have a bruise on their left shoulder. The bruises are nearly identical, and if you look at them right, they look like finger marks.
“My mom said an angel grabbed us both.” Dustin said.
Brown, the teacher, says she thinks the handprint is from Chris Rodgers, holding his kids for dear life.
If it is a handprint, it’s from someone with two left hands.
'Do Not Erase'
Brittany is going to be in the school’s beauty pageant this Friday, even though she broke her sternum in the storm. She’s one of the few who have a dress, Brown said. Many of the other contestants lost their outfits when a local dressmaker, who lived on Peek’s Hill Road, lost her house. Brown is looking for dresses to replace them.
Alexandria’s students and teachers are keeping it all in perspective. There are worse losses.
Like the loss of Spencer Motes, whose son goes to Alexandria. Motes died in Mamre Baptist Church, where he was seeking shelter from the storm. His death looms large in the students’ journal entries about the storm.
“My dad’s friend died in the storm,” one student wrote. “I went to his funeral.” In larger print: “I LOVE YOU SPENCER.”
Shannon Finley, the second-grade teacher, says breaking the news to the students has been easier than she expected.
“They’ve been with their parents, for days, talking about this,” she said. “They’ve had some time to process it.”
They all know the story of how the bodies of Bill Lipscomb and his wife, Linda, were found together not far from their house. Finley said Linda was found with her arms around Bill. Others say they were holding each other.
The details are immaterial. People know how they felt about each other.
“He loved his wife something fierce,” said McClure, the principal. “He was a very spiritual person. He loved God, his wife and his family, in that order.”
And he loved being useful. On Finley’s desk is the bent coathanger Lipscomb used to unclog Finley’s pencil sharpener, again and again. On her whiteboard is a series of smiley faces he drew.
It was part of a money-saving plan. When budget cuts slashed Alexandria’s custodial staff in half, Lipscomb devised a plan to save time and money and teach students some responsibility. Teachers would ask students to clean up their rooms just before the end of the school day –- and Lipscomb, when he came through to clean, would grade their work with a letter and a series of smiley faces.
“He was an easy grader,” Brown said. “I know there were times when we deserved an F and got a B. But the kids took it seriously. If they got a B, they were hurt.”
Brown got an A and four faces last Tuesday, the last day Lipscomb cleaned her room. Like other teachers, she plans keep that final grade on her board forever.
“I’ll put up a sign,” she said. “’Do not erase.’”