Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in a Feb. 22, 2016, edition of The Daily Nebraskan.
For any student who stays late at Andersen Hall, Donald Harris and Gina Schilke are just as much a part of the experience as excessive caffeine or the stress of a deadline.
The two custodians work from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. and make sure to strike a conversation with students and faculty as often as they can. For much of the faculty and College of Journalism and Mass Communications students, they’re considered a part of the college’s family.
Harris has been working with the university since 1990, and Schilke since 1977. Before moving to Andersen, the two worked together at Avery Hall, when the CoJMC was stationed there. When Andersen opened in 2001, the two were asked to follow to college to the new location.
Harris said that custodians following departments to a new building is rare. Usually, when a department leaves, the custodian stays put.
“But the dean reached out,” he said, “not only to our department but to the (longtime Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance Christine) Jackson and said, ‘We want these guys to follow us. They do a good job for our department, we want them.’”
Donna Martin, a custodial area manager, said that the two are a good example of custodial staff at UNL.
“They both have a real strong idea, a good work ethic (and) know now what needs to be done,” she said. “They kind of have become a part of the makeup of the family here (at Andersen). They seem to get along really well with everybody.”
For Schilke, the best part of the job is interacting with the students.
“They make my job,” she said. “They’re just so awesome.”
Harris said that he’s dubbed Schilke as the ‘den mother’ of the building. The grandmother of six does just about everything she can for students, from driving them home during snow storms to sewing buttons back on shirts.
“There’s not a student that she can walk by and not say nothing,” Harris said. “She gets along so well with all the students, and they all come to her. Just for any little thing that might be bugging them.”
Even after they’ve graduated, Schilke keeps up with former students through Facebook. The two still stay connected with students who graduated as far back as the ‘90s.
Harris said that the students and staff are one of the reasons they like working with the CoJMC so much.
“They’re a different people,” he said. “They’re all outgoing, somewhat wild and crazy in a sense. They’re so very friendly and everything. But at the same time, they’re serious about their work. They are different from other students at different fields. So you just can’t help but love them.”
The two have been working with CoJMC students at Andersen since 2001, and have worked together since 1992. Today, Harris said he can’t imagine working without Schilke.
“We know what the other one is thinking when it comes to work,” he said. “We work so well together. And I think that’s why the faculty here wanted us to come over (to Andersen) together, because they knew we worked so well together.”
The two met after Schilke’s shift was moved from Love Library to Avery. After working at the library for 15 years, she said she dreaded the move.
“I wanted to stay where I was at, but they were moving people around, so I had to go with the flow,” she said.
Harris said that Schilke didn’t know anyone in Avery, and he didn’t know anybody, period. But it didn’t take long for the two to become friends.
“The way I got to know her was basically always coming up behind her and scaring her,” Harris said. “She’s so easy to scare, so I found that funny, so I made it a point to always scare her at least two or three times at night. So that’s how we became just good friends. And the rest is history.”
Then the move to Andersen came in 2001, and the two were temporarily split up. Harris was still at Avery when Schilke was moved to Andersen, which was still under construction.
“We both were complaining,” Harris said. “I’m complaining about being over there and half the building is stripped down and she was complaining about being over here by herself.”
Schilke said that the first month by herself at night in Andersen was frightening.
“You hear weird noises and you didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “It was just all open, everything echoed and I just, I was nervous.”
Not only that, but custodial duties were more difficult when the building was under construction.
“When you start cleaning something up the next day, it’s sawdust,” Harris said. “It was just making it where people could walk through.”
Even though the beginning was rough, Schilke and Harris said that they’ve liked working in Andersen for the past 15 years.
“It feels like home,” Schilke said.
They’ve grown close to a lot of the staff since joining the college, they said. The two often go to faculty functions like Christmas parties and picnics. They also try to go to retirement parties when a staff member leaves.
After 25 years with the college, Harris said that they’re as close with the rest of the staff as ever.
“They are like our family,” he said. “And here it is, 25-some years later we’re still here.”