Aching back. Sore feet. Swollen fingers and shooting pains. At 70 years old, Sharon Devor knows her time working as a custodian at Massengale Residential Center is rightfully coming to an end. 

Despite it all, Devor says she wouldn’t take any of it back.

“I always wanted to work until I couldn’t anymore,” she said. “It’s just time to give it up.”

For a decades-long custodial career, including a stint with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that will celebrate its tenth birthday on the day of her retirement on Sept. 3, it’s been a fitting end, surrounded by friends and a welcoming atmosphere.

Sharon is one of three soon-to-retire custodians at East Campus’ sole residence hall, kindly referred to by students and staff as the “Golden Girls,” along with Diane Matulka and Candyce Poortinga, due to their joyful nature.

“We get to laughing and they can hear us clear down the hall,” Devor said. 

Matulka, who came to Massengale from Abel Hall in September 2021 with plans to retire in a year once she’d hit her own 10-year mark with the university, said the move turned out to be a welcome surprise. Although she knew Poortinga from her previous building, she only knew of Devor by name, and of East Campus by reputation.

“It was always, ‘Oh, you don’t want to go to East Campus, it’s the worst place to work,’” Matulka said. “I came out here, and in two months I was like, ‘I want to stay here!’” 

Quiet hallways after 11 o’clock. Polite, friendly students and, most of all, a much more close-knit community in the four-story building compared to her time spent at massive residence halls like the 13-floor Abel complex were all benefits to working in Massengale, according to Matulka. 

“When there’s 1,400 kids, you get to know a few of them, but then, it was like you don’t even remember which floor they’re on,” Matulka said. “Here, the kids are calling you out by name, and they’ll send little notes.”

Devor agreed, recalling her first day on the job after moving over to Massengale from City Campus housing in the summer of 2021. While she was working, one student poked her head out to offer her a snack and chat with her.

“The students here are so friendly,” Devor said. 

The custodians’ warmth isn’t lost on even the more reserved residents of Massengale. 

Hunter Littrell is a freshman fisheries and wildlife major at UNL who, in his own words, prefers to “mind his own business.” Matulka made a point of reaching out to Littrell, whose lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame and mop of curly hair makes him hard to miss despite his reserved demeanor, and left a lasting impression on him.

“She’s a sweet old lady,” Littrell said. “She knows which room I’m in and everything.”

Both Matulka and Littrell spoke appreciatively of the like-minded nature of the student population at Massengale, which Matulka said traditionally houses a majority of agriculture and wildlife-related majors, as well as those who generally come from more rural backgrounds.

“On the city campus, there is a difference, you can see it,” Matulka said. “I’m just gonna call it like it is, (on East Campus) they’re shit-kicking cowboy kids.”

Like all young adults coming into college, though, many students at Massengale are experiencing their first time away from home and the more rigid structure of K-12 education. Matulka, who emphasized her love for children of all ages, said she finds purpose in being able to serve in a mentor role to students.

“If they don’t have a parental, not necessarily parent, person to fall back on, kids are going to fail,” she said. 

The difference at Massengale, she said, is that she’s spread less thin, and more able to provide assistance and remind students that there is someone who cares about them and their success.

In one instance, she recalled helping a student develop a mnemonic to memorize biology concepts by associating them with Pokemon cards. She chided another for trying to pull an all-nighter, convincing him to go to bed early and wake up to study in the morning. 

Other times, she simply provided moral support. When one student was breaking down and considering running away because he was struggling with his classes, she reminded him of the bigger picture.

“If you’re gone, there’s no one who can replace you,” she recalled telling him. “You being here can make one person smile; you’re here for a reason.”

She spoke from experience. When all else fails, Matulka said she always falls back on her ability to make students laugh.

“I say, if I can leave you with a smile, that’s what I want, I want you to laugh because stress isn’t gonna take stress away, but laughter will ease it enough for you to continue to the next day,” she said.

That same support system is present between the custodial staff. Devor still remembers when another co-worker of hers, who has since retired, helped her through the loss of her husband of 42 years. Her friendship with Matulka has been yet another source of stability as the pair reach the end of their careers.

“That friendship means a lot,” Devor said. “I’ll miss her when she’s gone.”

With Devor retiring in the fall and Matulka set to leave next spring, both are already looking to what comes after.

Devor said she’s excited for the chance to travel the world whenever she’s not spending time with her boyfriend on the farm they live on, raising turkeys, chickens and pigs. Most importantly, she said, she’ll have more time to keep the place clean and tidy.

As for Matulka, she sees retirement as a continuation of what she’s done most of her life. She said she’ll take the opportunity to spend even more time with loved ones and in finding her next purpose.

“That has been my whole life; God, love, family and friends, and I would consider myself the richest person ever,” Matulka said.