If you pass through Schaver Music Recital Hall on the way through Community Arts Building, you know custodian Willie Johnson.
With his warm personality, Johnson — who is also a ventriloquist, voice impressionist, singer-songwriter and host of a show on WAYN Radio — finds a way to connect with just about everyone who walks through his halls.
“A smile is contagious,” Johnson said. “If a person who’s having a bad day sees someone smile, they may walk past still frowning. But they might reflect on it afterward, and it could be what they needed to make their day better.”
Johnson, 56, has been with Wayne State University’s Custodial Operations for 30 years. Throughout this time, he has seen many Tartar and Warrior employees come and go — but it’s WSU students who have resonated with him the most.
“When I first started working here, I was looking at students and seeing some sad faces. I said to myself that they need some encouragement,” Johnson said. “I tell them to keep up the good work in school. If you believe it, you can do it. I want the positive words to soak into their brain that they can achieve anything.”
For Rachael Marchionda, Johnson’s daily affirmations made a lasting connection. The 24-year-old graduate student, who currently studies speech and language pathology, met Johnson three years ago while an undergrad in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
“He’s the best,” Marchionda said. “I cut through this building a lot to get to classes on the other side of campus. He always tells me to do well in school and keep up the good work. Half the time I’m cutting through here it’s really early, I’m exhausted and maybe questioning why I’m doing this. Then I see Will, and he tells me to have a good day. After that, I know the day is going to be all right.”
Johnson recalls one student who confided that things in school were not going well. Johnson told the student to believe in himself and continued to offer his words of encouragement each time they crossed paths.
“I told him that he could do it,” Johnson said. “One month later, I saw him and he said he was doing great. He said, ‘Because of you, I’m doing better in my classes.’ I think I was more excited than he was.”
For Johnson, the students truly are the most rewarding part of his job. He’s even been invited to a few college graduation parties. “It makes me feel really good because someone let me know they appreciate what I helped them go through,” Johnson said.