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At 90, school custodian not the retiring type

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WILMINGTON, Del. — Almost every day for almost 25 years, Sam Singleton has shown up for work.

That's not extraordinary for school custodians across Delaware who quietly maintain places that are clean and safe for kids.

But there is something special about Singleton's near-quarter-century of working at Downes Elementary School in Newark. He started the job at an age when most people are retiring.

This Sunday, he will turn 90. And school staff say he's as reliable as ever.

It took a little coaxing to lure Singleton out of his work for a moment to visit the school library on Tuesday afternoon. But when he opened the door, work-gloves in hand, he was greeted by cheering teachers, a birthday cake, and a giant gift bag full of letters from students.

There are some signs of Singleton's age. His voice, for example, is hoarse from a previous career as a coal miner.

But even though his hands are weathered by almost a century of labor, he's still got a granite handshake. He can still bend to pick things off the floor “or to bend a wrinkled, smiling face to a 6-year-old” just fine. And he still knows the bones of the school better than anybody.

“Every day I'm going to him to ask where something is or how the best way to do something is. He knows every inch of this place up and down,” said chief custodian Tim Norris. “And I'm telling you, he can work harder and longer than most 16-year-olds I know.”

Charles Haywood is the former principal at Downes and was Singleton's boss for 16 years. He remembers watching a man well past retirement age drill holes through concrete and strip paint.

In all that time, Haywood can remember only one time when Singleton had to take a break.

“He was out early in the dark shoveling snow when he fell and broke his hip,” Haywood said. “But if you thought that was going to keep him down for long, well, you just don't know Sam. He's got just an incredible work ethic. He works circles around people half his age.”

That, Singleton says, is the key to his longevity. After retiring from jobs like mining and building, he wanted to keep doing something with his hands, something that would keep him moving, keep him sweating.

“You see people who are retiring while they're only in their 60s or their 70s, and they just stop being active,” Singleton said. “I don't think I could do that.”

And, for now, the beloved custodian doesn't see that changing.

“I don't know why I would stop,” he said. “I just like doing it.”

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