The latest in a series on longtime county employees.
John Mendell remembers the day he solved the mystery of the overheated gym at Orange Elementary School. The gym was so uncomfortable that school staff had resorted to turning the heat off and on via the breaker box rather than relying on a capricious thermostat.
In full troubleshooting mode, Mendell took a close look at a “big brass valve” in the heating system. The instructions printed on the valve were incorrect and, as a result, it hadn’t been installed properly. With a new valve inserted the right way, presto! The gym was no longer a steam room.
Mendell, 60, a friendly, blue-eyed man sporting a shirt with his first name on it, has worked in maintenance for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) for 28 years. His favorite part of the job is “trying to figure something out and then actually figuring it out.”
A native of Baltimore whose mother grew up in Orange County, he still has traces of a Baltimore accent, though he has lived in Burr Hill for three decades.
His mechanical aptitude was evident at a young age. He chuckled recalling how on Christmas, to his father’s dismay, he would take apart his new toys and redesign them to suit his fancy.
After graduating from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore in 1976, he joined the Air Force with his sights set on a career in avionics—maintaining the electrical systems of aircraft. Aptitude tests indicated he would be good at it, but after he enlisted, he was diagnosed as color blind.
The news came as a surprise to Mendell, who said he has trouble distinguishing between pastels but can see many colors. Being color blind “took away a lot of opportunities,” especially in electronics because so many wires are color-coded.
All was not lost. He served as a small-arms instructor and rose to the rank of sergeant. After he left the Air Force, he worked in a variety of jobs and married Robin Nixon of Orange County. They have three grown daughters, Nina, Tammy and Chasity.
Mendell came to OCPS in 1991. Working out of the maintenance shop near the bus garage, he arrives every day at 6:30 a.m. and is on the job until 3 p.m.
He has a schedule of “preventive maintenance” that he keeps to, but emergency requests take up much of his time. If a cafeteria freezer breaks down, Mendell is on the case. He has a helper, Jake Bernard, who pitches in.
On a recent day, Mendell bounced back and forth between repairing a walk-in refrigerator at Locust Grove Elementary School and fixing a freezer at Locust Grove Primary School.
“They get like old cars,” he said of the cranky equipment he nudges back to life until it’s time for a replacement.
“Fortunately, the people have supported us here at the school board. People over the years have tried to keep the equipment up. We have enjoyed a time of not too many emergencies lately,” he said, noting that renovations of the heating and cooling systems at Lightfoot Elementary School and Orange County High School have been a big help.
Mendell said the biggest change in his 28 years has been the transition from pneumatic power to computer operations. In the old days, he replaced tubes and transistors; now, much of his work involves repairing integrated circuits and circuit boards.
He said his boss, Doug Arnold, OCPS supervisor of facilities and maintenance, can adjust the temperature in any school building via a computer system called building automation control. And the cafeteria freezers are equipped with monitors that send alerts if they break down.
“That’s been a mixed blessing,” Mendell said with a wry smile, since he has received calls from the freezers at odd hours. “We haven’t lost food, so that’s a good thing.”
In another development, he has mastered use of a “recovery machine” for the safe removal of refrigerants from the schools’ cooling systems. The process is required by law to protect the ozone layer.
When school is in session, Mendell changes air filters on a regular basis in all the buildings and keeps the heating and cooling systems and cafeteria equipment running smoothly. He said elementary school children “like to wave and say ‘hi’ ” when he comes into their classrooms to do maintenance work, and he enjoys occasionally running into his grandsons during their school day.
Summer is his busy season when he installs new rooftop compressors, a process aided by the school division’s acquisition of a crane.
“The major cleaning—filter cleaning, lubrications—all happens in the summer,” he added.
With his trusty screwdriver and volt ohm meter in hand, Mendell can fix just about anything, but he can’t fix the weather. On a 100-degree day in July, it may be closer to 120 atop a school roof. He said dealing with the heat and the rain is the hardest part of his job.
A devout Christian, Mendell is an elder at Unionville Christian Church. In his leisure time, he enjoys spending time with his grandchildren and fishing at a family farm pond.
Mendell has another activity that he loves: stargazing.
“I was teaching a Sunday school class, and we were looking at evolution and science in the Bible. It got me started looking at God’s creations. I thought it was pretty cool,” he said.
Reliable and determined to solve whatever problems come his way, Mendell has been a boon to OCPS. Arnold gives him high marks for his “amazing knowledge and experience” working on everything from boilers to chillers to heat pumps to electrical systems.
“John’s work ethic is definitely old-school,” Arnold said. “He will keep going regardless of the physical wear and tear from handling heavy pumps, motors and other equipment, and that factor, combined with his level of expertise, makes him an invaluable asset to our team.”