COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — She is tender enough to take time to fluff the pillows in the director's office, and she is tough enough to take out the rocks a student tried to flush down a toilet.

"If you see something that needs to be done," Carolyn Gardner explained, "just do it."

That's the philosophy Gardner has used during her 42 years as a custodian in the Muscogee County School District, including the past 30 at St. Elmo, which opened in 1930 as a school for grades K-7. Since 1990, the historic Revival-style building at Lakebottom has housed MCSD's Center for the Gifted, where nearly 800 gifted elementary schools students are bused one day per week.

Gardner, 62, will retire at the end of this month.

Asked what prompted her decision to retire, Gardner said, "It's time for me to go home and enjoy the time I have left with my family."

She and her husband, Raiford, have two sons and four grandchildren. Her mother, Annie Rogers, is a cook at Rothschild Leadership Academy and adjacent Lonnie Jackson Academy.

Gardner grew up in Columbus. She attended Davis Elementary School, Marshall Junior High School and Spencer High School, class of 1974. While taking classes at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, she worked part-time for MCSD, cleaning Davis Elementary during an era when the female custodians were called maids and the male custodians were called janitors. She wanted to become a secretary but realized she wouldn't make any more money than doing custodial work.

In her career, she also has worked at Spencer, Gentian Elementary School, Richards Junior High School and MCSD's print shop before moving to St. Elmo in 1987.

"I took a lot of pride in my work all down through the years," she said. "That's why I'm at where I am today."

Gardner enjoys her job because, she said, "I like a clean environment."

And she the awards to prove it. Gardner and fellow custodian Rose Spears have earned St. Elmo the honor of rating as MCSD's cleanest school in the district in each of the past two years — a total of eight times since 1999. Also gratifying, Gardner said, is the standing ovation St. Elmo staff members give Spears and her at the end-of-the-year luncheon.

"But they let us know all the time," Gardner noted. "We are one big happy family. I love St. Elmo because St. Elmo has been good to us. The teachers, they treat us like we're somebody, so that makes you work even harder for them."

The key to their success, Gardner said, is that they "don't leave until our work is done."

That work ethic has taken a toll, however. Gardner's arthritis and her recent slip on a wet floor have weakened her a bit, "but I keep going, keep pushing myself," she said.

St. Elmo director Christine Hull was among the gifted center's first students in 1990, when she attended Double Churches Elementary School. She remembers seeing Gardner then — "she hasn't changed a bit," Hull said with a laugh — but she didn't understand Gardner's positive impact until she became St. Elmo's director in April 2016, when the school board promoted her from assistant principal at Northside High School.

"I'm kind of sad," Hull said. "I don't want to lose her."

Hull said Gardner "doesn't get caught up in the day-to-day drama that you could get caught up in at any workplace. . I've worked in many schools, and the custodians do what they can, but what she says about this being a family, you really feel that from her."

Kelly Jordan, in her fifth year teaching at St. Elmo, said she has worked at "some of the newer schools that weren't as clean as this."

Jordan also appreciates Gardner considering herself responsible for the students as much as any staff member.

"She smiles at them or she'll get on to them if they need it just a little," Jordan said. "They respect her. She's a constant part of this school. She's just a quality person, from the inside out. We're going to really miss her."

Hull recalled what Gardner told her when she became St. Elmo's leader: "I've seen a lot of people come and go, but as long as you're a woman of your word, we'll get along just fine."

Laughing at that memory, Hull said Gardner "very much has a standard for what she believes should happen in the workplace and how she runs her school but in a great way."

Gardner shows her "integrity and authenticity," Hull said, "through the love she puts into her work and also puts into the people she works with. She has a relationship with every faculty member. She even knows their families. Like my son, he's her baby, too, and that's the way she feels about all of our children."

Gardner also is courageously honest, Hull said. "If she has any kind of conflict with a student or any other person in the building, she will work to resolve that conflict, even though it might not be pleasant. She holds them accountable as much as she does herself, but she always approaches it in a way that's professional."

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Information from: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, http://ledger-enquirer.com