Tara Bone, contributing writer

Millville Elementary School is more than a building of brick and mortar. Every school day it becomes a bustling community where children learn in a family-like environment; where flowers bloom each spring, Millie the bearded dragon is part of the faculty, and lunchroom DJs — a.k.a., the head custodian and principal — play tunes most Fridays.

Eric Duersch, Millville Elementary School’s head custodian will tell you the school’s success is due to amazing teachers and administrators, excellent students, and the dedicated staff he works with who are like family. Though all that is true, a closer look uncovers the fact that Eric Duersch is a special part of the school.

The head custodian for nine years at Millville Elementary, Eric was recently honored for consistently going above and beyond in his work through a nation-wide competition. He was named a finalist in the Tennant Corporation’s 5th-annual Custodians Are Key contest.

Eric is modest about the award and simply describes himself as a “Valley Man.” He was born and raised in Logan and currently lives in Wellsville. He says he learned to love working outdoors and gardening in the Cache Valley soil from his father and grandfather. Eric’s father taught biology at Logan High for 37 years, his father-in-law was a teacher at Mountain Crest, and his wife has spent a career educating Cache Valley’s children and currently works as an instructional coach for Cache County School District. He says education is “just what family does.”

Eric has taken his wide range of knowledge and applied it to every aspect of the school. He’s planted bulbs and at least 12 trees on the grounds and even brings the flowers in for the school office. He noticed students were getting muddy on the playground playing kickball, so he dug out and installed a sports area on a lower field where the kids play pickleball, softball, and wiffle ball. He adds that he’s even played ball with the kids.

Eric’s involvement with the school doesn’t stop there. He tutors in the school’s afterschool program, has taught STEM classes during the school’s summer program, and each year renews his food handlers permit so he can help at lunch if needed. He cares for the school’s pet bearded dragon, Millie, and offers classroom presentations about her. He even coordinates a community metal recycling program he started that raises funds for the school.

Eric’s proactive, can-do attitude is evident in an appreciation dinner he started. A few years ago, he wanted to thank maintenance staff who work at the school throughout the year, so he started hosting a meal. It’s grown to include all the district’s full-time custodians, and now includes all district staff. Last year he smoked 90 pounds of meat for the dinner to say, “thank you.”

In turn, Angela Justesen, a 4th-grade teacher at Millville Elementary, wanted to say “thank you” to Eric. Last December while scrolling through social media she came across the award from Tennant, a company headquartered in Minnesota that manufactures cleaning tools and supplies.

The Custodians Are Key Award honors K-12 custodians from the United States and Canada who are going above and beyond. She knew Eric fit that description.

“Not only is Duersch an amazing custodian that keeps our school looking immaculate, but he is an important contributor to the education of our students too. He helps kids who need extra help as well as a positive adult example in their lives,” Angela said. “The students recognize him as a trusted adult at the school they can interact with. They know he cares about them. He looks for creative ways to help our struggling students learn and have fun while learning. He truly is KEY and a power of good at our school!”

It was no surprise to Angela or anyone at Millville Elementary when out of nearly 1,400 award nominations, Eric was named one of the 12 finalists. Eric and the other finalists received a $500 award. The grand prize winner will be announced in May. The only person who didn’t expect the accolades was Eric.

“I was surprised,” Eric said. “I don’t feel I’m deserving of it. I’m just doing my job.” Of his reaction, Angela said “He was in disbelief. He was excited and got tears in his eyes.”

Until the final award winner is selected, Eric will go about his work. He says he’s excited to create a giant 8’ X 15’ March Madness bracket once again for the entire school and get the grounds ready for summer. He enjoys his work and sums it up with, “I try to make it a happy place, and I love being around the kids.”