When George Smith was officially hired as the maintenance man at St. Francis Xavier Church and School on Metairie Road on May 16, his 86th birthday, the first thing a lot of folks may have done was scramble around for a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records.
They could have checked out, “Longest time on the job without being hired.” Or “Longest job probation ever.”
No such title?
“George could fit easily into any of those categories,” said the Rev. Msgr. Andrew Taormina, pastor of St. Francis Xavier.
That’s because George Smith had been working at the Metairie school and church for 65 years on a “let’s-see-how-this-works-out” type of arrangement.
Of course he was on the books, contributed to Social Security, had health insurance and all the other standard benefits of the working life.
But before Monsignor Taormina noticed the lapse, the quiet, self-effacing caretaker had never officially gone from “Sure, let’s try you out,” to “You’re hired.”
“I worked hard all my life,” Smith says. “I grew up on Camp (Street) and St. Andrew Street, right down from the Irish Channel. I was cleaning houses when I was 9 years old. There was hardly ever a time when I didn’t have three, sometimes four jobs at once. I was doing deliveries for a bakery shop and a drugstore. I worked in a bowling alley and on an ice truck. I never stopped. When I delivered, I had one of those bikes with the little wheel in the front and the big wheel on the back, a big basket.
“I was working for a barroom called the Red Bird on Sophie B. Wright Place. I remember it was winter time … a really cold winter. I used to get soaking wet in the rain, and I would be freezing. Well, this man I was delivering to one day asked me if I’d like to have a job indoors. He didn’t have to ask me twice. He brought me out here to St. Francis and introduced me to Monsignor Felix (Miller).
“Monsignor Miller said, ‘I’ll try you out for a while. See how you do.’ ”
Ever since, Smith has maintained the classrooms, the church and the cafeteria. “I really enjoyed it,” he said.
That was 65 years ago. Monsignor Miller was followed by Monsignor Harrison Martin who was followed by Monsignor Henry Bezou. Then came Father Lawrence Hecker, whose job as pastor became the job of Monsignor Taormina in 1987.
Added to that number of pastors is a mile-long list of numerous assistant pastors, associate pastors, parochial vicars and religious order priests who resided at the St. Francis Rectory.
“George is a very quiet man,” Monsignor Taormina said. “Pastors came and went, and George was still here doing his job. … In May, we had a Mass at the end of the school year and it happened to be on George’s birthday. I just thought I would finally hire him on his birthday. Make it official. Now he has ‘job security.’
“It seems like there were times that everywhere you looked, you saw George,” said Bessie McDaniel. She has worked with Smith for the past 25 years, picking him up at his Hollygrove home each morning and bringing him back in the evenings.
“My wife, Ethel, used to come and work with me sometimes, too,” Smith said. “We had nuns here at the time, and they’d see her here a lot, so they hired her. She worked with me from 1964 to 1980. She has since passed away.”
It’s been a long lifetime of memories.
“I see children today who are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of youngsters I remember from so long ago,” Smith said. “A man came up to me a while back and asked me, ‘Are you the son of Mr. George Smith who used to work here?’ I told him ‘No. I am Mr. George Smith.’ ”
Smith’s universe has changed immensely over the years.
The quaint little wooden church that went up seemingly eons ago creaked under the growth of the burgeoning parish and survived a nasty termite invasion, but it has been replaced by a mega-structure on the opposite end of the block. The school has been enlarged to keep up.
In addition to everything else he does around the church, school and office buildings, Smith is “building a small office” in the rear of the old church. “I’m setting up a kitchen back here for my coffee,” he said.
Keeping up with the growth of the parish as he has with new buildings, accommodations and programs is a crowning achievement for Taormina, who said he is considering retirement.
“I’ve already sent out a letter saying that in July of 2017, I will have been here 30 years, and that is probably what I’m aiming at,” said Taormina, a New Orleans native.
But George Smith? He was smiling recently when he got a call from his doctor saying that a recent checkup shows he’s fit as a fiddle. “That means I’m ready to go,” he said.
And even as he closes in on his 90s, it doesn’t look like he’s planning any letter of retirement just yet.