Tara Bone, contributing writer
Every morning students arrive at Canyon Elementary in Hyrum. There’s the buzz of students hurrying to class, teachers preparing their classrooms, and even students welcoming their peers to school. There’s also someone walking down the hall. It’s Clayton Nielsen surrounded by a crowd of smiling students. To everyone he calls, “Good morning, good morning,” and asks, “How are you today?” He gives high fives and the kids share their good mornings and how they’re feeling.
Canyon students will tell you about Clayton. A second-grade boy says “He’s the best part of school and makes me so happy!” Another student proudly says “He knows all our names!”
Clayton Nielsen has been brightening the days of students at Canyon Elementary for eight years. As Head Custodian, Clayton does things you’d expect like shoveling snow, maintaining the school, and keeping the lights on. But there’s also the unexpected, like all the talent shows he’s participated in, or the day he dressed up as a mouse and rode a motorcycle to promote the school-wide read of The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Students aren’t Clayton’s only fans. Teachers, staff and parents all appreciate Clayton. Cheryl Nielsen is a second grade teacher at Canyon Elementary who has been teaching for more than 20 years.
She says not only does Clayton always take care of anything she needs done in her classroom, he is an important part of the school who dresses up for every spirit day and Halloween to make the kids smile.
“He’s every student’s best friend,” Cheryl said. “They all know who he is and have some kind of positive experience to share about him.”
Janna Lilinquist is a parent who has had three children attend Canyon. She feels Clayton is like a dad or grandpa to all of the students.
“The school wouldn’t be complete with out him,” she said. “All the kids want to talk to him, be by him and give him a high fives, and he’s a friend to the kids who don’t have a friend.”
Clayton is humble about his impact and said he just works to be a positive influence and provide a safe and happy environment.
“Every kids’ school needs to be somewhere they enjoy being. I’m not a teacher, but I think I’m a second dad,” Clayton said. “You pull teeth, you put band aids on, you fix shoes – you want to make it a good place for kids to be so they enjoy coming here. There’s a lot to do in this school, you try and do it all and make it a safe and happy place for these kids. That’s the whole goal for the kids.”
When asked about his favorite experience at Canyon Elementary, he can’t identify just one.
“You know, every day is good, for instance when you see the choir get up and sing, or the kids put on a play. I get to see them from where they start, and you think oh man, I hope they make it,” Clayton said. “And then they do awesome. You just see these kids go from this point to this point and it amazes you.”
Clayton is an integral part of Canyon. His enthusiasm and happiness are infectious. As a Leader in Me school we are constantly trying to teach students to Be Proactive and to “Choose your own weather!” which means, you control your own attitude, happiness and behavior. Clayton demonstrates that to everyone every day as he comes ready to work hard, solve problems and have a good time doing it! Canyon simply would not feel the same without him!” – Stacie Williamson, Canyon Elementary School Principal
Clayton Nielsen has lived in Hyrum for 55 years and was raised in a house just two blocks away from where he lives now. He thinks the best part of living in Hyrum is the small-town feeling and its proximity to the mountains.
“When you go to the grocery store, you always know somebody there. Hyrum is close to the mountains and that’s where I spend a lot of time in the summer,” Clayton said. “I ride my horses a lot, hunt, snowmobile, four-wheel and camp. You know, I put a lot of miles on a horse,” he said. “I have since I was a little kid.”
Clayton takes every chance he can to ride one of his eight horses or mule. He also enjoys spending time with his wife, Maria, and their four children and two grandchildren. Maria and Clayton have been married almost 34 years and he says their story goes “way back.”
“Our parents were best friends and when I was little, about 10 years old, I worked for her [Maria’s] dad,” Clayton said.
He served an LDS mission to Wisconsin and later worked at Thiokol building shuttle nozzles. Following his work at Thiokol, he owned Nielsen Dental Lab in Logan for 16 years. He said he enjoyed his work, but felt he was missing his kids growing up.
“I was working 24/7,” he said. “I loved it, it was good, but it was too big for a one-man lab and I thought, shoot, all my kids are doing all this stuff and here I am working.”
Meanwhile, Maria worked 31 years for the Cache County School District and now enjoys working and traveling with Solution Tree, a company offering professional development to schools around the world. Clayton said it was a tough decision for her to leave the school district because she loves kids, but he is happy to travel with her when he can.
“She’s even able to haul me around a little bit, you know,” he said. “I went to China and trucked on the Great Wall of China and it was fun.”
Until his next trip around the world with Maria, Clayton is happy to cheer on the students at Canyon Elementary. He feels he has the best job and that “life is good” in Hyrum.
“That’s what makes this job the best – the kids,” he said. “You come here [to school] and you never know what you’re going to get, you’ve got hundreds of kids with different personalities and ideas and that makes it fun.”