In the Viking Union, long after the sun has set, after the food court has closed, after the post office has shut its window and the last few AS employees trickle out of the building to go home for the night, John Hanneman’s day begins.
I found him sitting in his office, at about 9:30 p.m., catching up on emails before starting his rounds. He wore a big, blue and white Rastafari-style knit hat which looked to be concealing a pile of dread-locked brown hair. His greeting was warm and friendly.
“I don’t know if I have all the answers to your questions,” Hanneman said, “but he does,” pointing at the Jimi Hendrix screen saver on the desktop of his computer.
With that, we were off, massive cleaning supplies cart and mop bucket in tow. Hanneman has been a custodian at Western since 2007, and got the job as the VU’s lead custodian just a few years ago. He manages a crew of seven, mostly students. Hanneman especially appreciates being able to work with students, saying that, “It gives me a chance to express myself more and freely among a bunch of intelligent, knowledge seeking young people. It can’t be much better than that.”
Hanneman is 47 years old, though he says he still gets carded on occasion. His road to Bellingham was a long and winding one, starting in his hometown in rural Kansas.
He attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence for three years, but a complicated financial situation with his family and high tuition had Hanneman deep in student loan debt, working three jobs just to try to keep up.
“I pulled it off for three years, not very well. I’m still academically inclined, it’s not like it was hard, just an odd situation,” he said.
Then, in 1990, Hanneman found himself standing in front of the door of a place he never expected to be - a US Army recruiting office.
“Of all things, the last thing I wanted to was join the military,” but he did, “Because they would send me out here.”
Hanneman requested to be stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma so that he could scuba dive in Puget Sound, which he did. Hanneman said he’s been on at least 47 dives in the Sound.
Hanneman arrived at Fort Lewis in April of 1990, and one day in May of that year, he sat in the base’s dayroom with a group of other soldiers and watched as tanks rolled into Kuwait, marking the beginnings of Operation Desert Storm. It was a no longer a peacetime army.
“Everything’s been different since then,” he said. But Hanneman wasn’t deployed during Desert Storm, and by 1992, he was out of the army and headed to Bellingham and Western as a student. He took classes on campus for a year-and-a-half before getting a job at a little kids’ play place called Tube Time, which is no longer around. He also was one of the first employees at Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro, which has since become a Bellingham staple.
While working at Boundary Bay, Hanneman learned to throw pizza dough, “I made a quarter of a million pizzas down there, literally,” he said.
He started creating his own dough recipes and started a pizza crust business, which was to be called John Dough Pizza Company. He baked in Erin Baker’s bakery, the owner of Baker’s Breakfast Cookies, which was also just starting out at the time. Hanneman’s logic was that “If she blew up, I could blow up.”
But it wasn’t to be. The combination of a bad economic climate and the loss of a few investors forced Hanneman to sell out in 2004.
“I found out I didn’t have the heart to make a lot of money.” But he’s still proud of the product, “It was the best damn pizza. Oh my god it was good. I used olive oil, not canola oil. I stuffed as much whole grain as I could into a pizza crust without offending anybody, a little bit of rye in there, just fantastic.”
Hanneman then worked at an assisted living residence with elderly and individuals with developmental disabilities.
“I miss them so much to this day,” he said. “So much fun. A very difficult job, but just such a loving experience.”
In 2007, Hanneman got a custodial job at Western, and several years later when the lead custodian retired, Hanneman applied and took over. He’s dealt with a lot in his tenure at the VU, from a massive flood in the VU Gallery at 4 a.m. to the drunken students who try to climb the outside of the building, which apparently is a regular thing. He’s learned to live with the brutal backward 9-to-5 schedule, having to be in bed by noon in order to get enough sleep. It’s the students that make it all worth it.
After opening the locked VU door to let a group of students walk through the lobby and warm up, Hanneman turned and said, “This is the best part of my job every night… if it’s cold I can let people warm up for a little bit. That is the essence of what I feel I do around here. Support. We all work together.”
Hanneman noted that since the financial crisis in 2008, students have been a lot less likely to make messes, that being in college is no longer something people take for granted. He feels that his work is recognized, “The majority of students are aware that there are people on staff at this university keeping things clean, and that it’s not just house elves.”
For Hanneman, if Western’s campus were a giant car, the VU would be the hood ornament, “So I want to polish up the hood ornament, because it’s the first thing that new students and their parents will see, standing here and looking over the bay, I want that to be a great memory.”
As our interview concluded, my night was finished and I would head home to a comfortable bed. Hanneman still had six and half hours of work left to do. This was daunting to me, but for him, it’s worth it.
“I take a tremendous amount of pride in this place. Same as if I was making a pizza for you, I’d want it to taste great. I’d want it to be the best pizza you’ve ever had, I’d want each bite to be the best bite you’ve ever had, and that’s just like this place: I want it to look yummy.”