Anyone who thinks nothing happens at an elementary school during the summer should have seen Bob Ross on a recent sunny afternoon. With early rush-hour traffic whipping by on Western Avenue and the temperature in the mid-90s, Ross was guiding a 45-foot-long trailer as the driver attempted the tricky maneuver of backing into the parking lot at Queen of Angels Catholic School. The driver was good, Ross kept his cool despite an inquisitive neighbor and a couple of perturbed honks, and soon he was surveying his prize: 50 cubic yards of mulch and another chore.
Summer or winter, weekday or weekend, it’s all in a 12-hour day’s work for Ross, the building manager for the Lincoln Square parish. He has had his job for 20 years, and in that time he’s probably done about 30 years’ worth of work. In a typical week, Ross, who also reads at Sunday Mass and serves as president of the parish men’s club, will work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on school days, supervise parents who volunteer for five hours on Saturday and then call bingo from noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday.
That much work can’t go unnoticed, and some parishioners are a little concerned about the 67-year-old’s plans for the future.
“They’ll ask, ‘Mr. Ross, when will you retire? It’ll take five people to do your job,’ ” he says. Although he admits he has no definite plans, he does have an idea for a project.
“Maybe I’ll learn to take a vacation.”
The school is clearly more than a workplace for Ross. He and his wife have lived around the corner for nearly 40 years, and both of their children are graduates. He has seen many classes come and go, and he gets a kick out of seeing the children of former students show up for their first day at Queen of Angels.
It’s the little ones that give him the most satisfaction, the kindergartners and first-graders who still need a little help from Mr. Ross now and then. Zipping up coats during the winter, cutting meat at lunch and tying shoes are as much a part of his job as fixing a faucet or replacing a light fixture. These kids bring out a sense of duty in Ross, a grandfather of four.
“If you had kids in school, you’d hope some adult would be looking after them,” he says.
And while he likes helping the younger students, Ross also enjoys recruiting the older ones to give him a hand with certain projects. Once upon a time he’d only ask boys for help, but no longer.
“The girls would ask, ‘Mr. Ross, why don’t you pick us?’ ” He didn’t have a good answer, and chores are now handed out on an equal-opportunity basis. “We live in an age when you need to give everyone a chance,” Ross says.
A calm, unassuming man whose line of work keeps him behind the scenes much of the time, Ross did get a much-deserved curtain call last October. The school had just completed a major renovation, and a special “thank you” Mass, attended by Cardinal Francis George, was held to honor everyone who had helped. Names were read and applause was given, but when the pastor called out “Bob Ross,” the entire congregation exploded in a standing ovation. Ross was touched but a little surprised by the reaction. “I felt like I was just doing what I wanted to do,” he says.
Reprinted courtesy of CityTalk magazine from the August 16, 2002 issue
By Joe O’Brien
Photograph by Christopher T. Assaf