Meet Marie, the custodian who keeps McNary High School running

Ahead of the 2024 Crystal Apple Awards for outstanding educators on May 22, Salem Reporter is profiling several of the 97 nominees. The awards are presented by the McLaran Leadership Foundation and the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce at the Salem Convention Center. Tickets are sold out.

Marie Davis-Anderson was cleaning tables after breakfast in the McNary High School lunchroom Wednesday morning when a call came over her radio.

Students in the Celtics store had tripped a breaker while trying to run small appliances heating up food to sell to classmates.

“Hey Marie, would you be able to help out?” a voice asked.

“I’ll be right there,” she responded, already walking briskly toward the lunchroom door.

It’s a signature phrase for the longtime custodian, who has worked in local schools since 2012, mostly at McNary.

Davis-Anderson’s McNary colleagues nominated her for a Crystal Apple award, crediting her with keeping the school a “clean canvas” for learning to take place and always working with a smile on her face. Principal Scott Gragg called her the school’s “most dependable staff member.”

“Marie has taken care of puke all over desks in a moment’s notice. She came at once and had the mess cleaned up between passing time so my next class could start without delay,” teacher Tracey Rhoades wrote in a nomination letter. “During a mouse invasion she was immediate in her response to disposing of mice from my traps that come once or twice a day.”

“Marie frequently puts the needs of students and staff in front of her daily responsibilities. She is always available to help clean up a mess, provide assistance for students who have trouble with their locker, deliver items to classrooms for staff, and welcoming visitors to our school. Marie has a quiet strength that exudes confidence and care,” Gragg wrote.

Marie Davis-Anderson puts tables out in the McNary High School lunchroom on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Davis-Anderson applied to work as a custodian after 12 years being a stay-at-home mom raising three children: “extra experience” with cleaning, she said. Her two oldest children now work for the district in special education.

Her parents owned a janitorial company so she thought the work would be a good fit. She’s McNary’s only day custodian — the sole person on duty to clean a building that houses 2,200 students from 6:30 a.m. until lunchtime.

The job is much more than unclogging toilets, though Davis-Anderson sees the full gamut of high school creativity in the school bathrooms. She matter-of-factly lists off items she’s seen students try to flush down toilets: a stapler, a potato.

“Their brains are still developing,” she says by way of explanation.

Davis-Anderson takes pride in learning how to fix things around McNary and passing her knowledge on to students.

On Wednesday, she patiently unlocked doors so Celtics students could walk up to the control booth for the theater and reset the breaker for their store. She suggested they plug their toaster into another outlet right outside the store, since appliances that heat things up quickly draw more power than those that hold a hot or cold temperature.

“I found that out from the electricians,” she said. She tries to pick up what she can from the tradespeople who are called in for repairs so she can help.

Sometimes, students receiving in-school suspension are assigned to work with her, helping clean up as a consequence for throwing food. She likes being able to help students learn responsibility and hopes she’s been successful when students don’t return to lunch cleanup duty.

“When they come after they’ve done something bad, I let them know there’s other ways of doing things,” she said. 

Davis-Anderson tracks her steps on a pink smart watch. By 10 a.m. Wednesday, she’d logged over 6,400 steps — more than three miles. A typical day, she’ll walk two to three times that around campus.

“It keeps me busy,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.