The Custodians

 

“He was a hard worker, but I don’t think anybody had an idea that he was a multi-millionaire.”

 

Ronald Read was the first in his family to earn a diploma. According to his obituary in the Brattleboro Reformer, he “was so determined to finish high school that he walked and hitchhiked into Brattleboro every day until he graduated in 1940.” It was a two hour walk each way.

After serving in World War II, Mr. Read worked at a gas station, then as a janitor at J.C. Penney. He read the Wall Street Journal every day, and – with frugality and investing acumen – amassed a fortune of over $8 million. He left most of it to a hospital, and to the local library, where he’d been a regular.

 

 

Mr. Jones was 47 and working nights as a janitor in a Lacey, Wash., high school when he mailed, unsolicited, a fictionalized Vietnam War story to The New Yorker.

 

After Thom Jones completed his nightly custodial duties, he’d read in the school library.

He had served in the Marines, where he’d been badly injured during a boxing match. This injury prevented his deployment, but probably saved his life: almost all of the other Marines in his unit were killed.

As his New York Times obituary notes, Mr. Jones brought a boxer’s sensibility to writing:

“For me it was easy: Produce text that was so good, an editor could not reject it,” he said. “If I couldn’t do that, I had no business whining about anything. Show or go. It’s Darwinian and it’s fair.”

The story he sent to the The New Yorker won the 1993 O. Henry Award.