‘Mr. Peanuts’ Celebrates 80th Birthday with Students, Staff

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By: 
Katherine Perreth
Top to Bottom: Peanuts blows out his candles; Peanuts surrounded by students; Staff wore plain in honor of Peanuts.

CROSS PLAINS–Encircled by over 300 students and staff singing and boisterously shouting, “Happy Birthday!” Rod “Peanuts” Esser listened with moist eyes and a more than surprised look on his face. The Park Elementary School assembly celebration in honor of Esser’s 80th birthday had managed to remain hush-hush, and he had entered the gym expecting to set up chairs for an unnamed event.

After blowing out his cake candles, Esser had a request. “I want you all to close your eyes,” he said, “now, open them. This is what heaven looks like. You’re the reason I love to come to work.”

Earlier that morning, Esser had commented upon staff wearing plaid flannel shirts, inquiring, “Is this black and white day?” said kindergarten teacher Lisa Breunig.

Plaid and/or flannel is Esser’s trademark clothing choice, said Principal Monica Schommer, and she’s made a proclamation that Dec. 9 will henceforth be “Flannel Day.”

Asked whether he was surprised, Esser, the school custodian of 55 years, said, “Totally. I never expected this. Have you ever seen a grown man cry?”

Esser has been the one unchanging fixture at the elementary school in Cross Plains, said Schommer. He’s worked with seven principals, hundreds of staff, and thousands of children, many of whom from decades ago routinely inquire if “Mr. Peanuts” is still custodian.

“It’s not often a staff member turns 80 and is still working,” Schommer said. “He is Park school, he puts his heart and soul into this place, not just the building, all the people inside, and he’s all about the kids. Besides wearing flannel, Schommer said the custodian is also known for his “positive attitude, humility and incredible work ethic.”

Esser has watched the school construct additions, transform from K-8 to what it is now, K-4, and seen technology change from the time the building had one phone. During his first 30 years of employment, he used his own farm tractor to plow snow, he said, and remembered, as the lone employee on snow days, fielding calls from parents. He’s seen the school population grow from 116 in 1965 to nearly 300 youngsters now.

“It’s heartwarming that I’ve been a part of their lives,” Esser said, of former students who are now doctors to deliverymen. “They’re successful, from all walks of life.”

Congratulating Esser, Schommer informed the students, “He came as a young chap, and he’s still a young chap.” Esser called today’s birthday his “second forty.”

Staff showed a celebratory video of the schoolchildren expressing happy birthday wishes and thanks for everything Esser does, from hanging extra kindergarten clothing hooks to fixing lights. The video was peppered with “I love you Mr. Peanuts,” and at its conclusion Esser was swarmed by students delivering handmade banners and pictures.

“Here’s a little more light reading for you, tonight,” Schommer said, handing Esser a bag stuffed with class-made bound birthday booklets and cards . “We’re so blessed to have him,” she added. “He makes us smile every day.”

Esser countered, “I’m blessed. This is a good day!”

 

 

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