Written by Jeff Budlong | Photos by Christopher Gannon
June 13, 2023

Custodians Eric Smay and Beth Paulsen clean the auditorium inside Troxel Hall each day following orientation programming.

Night shift custodians Eric Smay and Beth Paulsen clean the Troxel Hall auditorium. A complete clean of Troxel can take four to five hours.

Dozens of instructors have taught in Troxel Hall's auditorium, but the 400-seat classroom transforms into a different kind of stage for this month's first-year student orientation. After the newest group of Cyclones have exited, two dedicated staff members get to work to ensure tomorrow's group has the same rewarding experience.

Custodians Eric Smay and Beth Paulsen prepare the auditorium for its next performance in a 19-day showcase for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Sometimes, they take a little inspiration from their own frontmen -- perhaps Freddie Mercury or Layne Staley.

"When we do a full clean in the auditorium, we'll hook up our phone to the sound system and listen to Queen or Alice in Chains," Paulsen said.

Dedicated duo

Smay and Paulsen begin their day at 4 p.m. and work until 12:30 a.m. as part of a 23-person night crew that keeps campus buildings gleaming. They've been a team since Paulsen started 18 months ago, and they know orientation is a time to help ISU put its best foot forward.

"I am here for the students, and I like to keep it clean for them," said Smay, who has worked on campus for three years. "It may be a small piece, but I want to make it as easy as I can for them to get a good education."

They clean the restrooms, empty trash and work their way through the auditorium to sweep the floor, clean up spills and have the chairs and desks ready, usually with a little musical accompaniment. Unlike other buildings on campus, Troxel doesn't have day shift custodians, so Smay and Paulsen know the four to five hours it takes to clean the building will be noticed.

They work hard but efficiently because Troxel isn't all they are responsible for each night. Rooms in Bessey and Agronomy halls and the entire Landscape Architecture Building await.

Paulsen said interaction with students is rare because of the late hours, but the simple compliments she receives occasionally go a long way and reinforce why she does the work. Success is a simple measurement. If people don't notice their efforts, it's a job well done.

"Nobody goes into a place and thinks, 'Who has to clean this?' Until it's not being done," Paulsen said.

They are recognized for going above and beyond because of the pride they take in their work.

"Beth and Eric are two of my hardest working employees on the nightshift," said custodial services supervisor Kelly Simmons. "They want what is best for our students and staff, and are always looking for ways to keep campus looking beautiful."

They often pick up trash outside as they move between their buildings -- not officially part of their duties -- and admit the perfectionist in them is never satisfied.

"If I see a cobweb, I'll get down on my hands and knees to get it because if I don't, it just bothers me," Smay said.

It may be a small piece, but I want to make it as easy as I can for [the students] to get a good education.

Eric Smay, custodian

Custodians or comic duo?

Custodians Eric Smay and Beth Paulsen pose in the Troxel Hall auditorium.
Custodians Beth Paulsen and Eric Smay clean Troxel Hall with pride every night, a key piece in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences hosting a successful welcome session for its first-year students every afternoon.

Part of the reason Smay and Paulsen enjoy their late-night work is the tranquility it can provide. It's often quiet and sometimes includes breathtaking views of campus and wildlife lit by the moon and stars. Smay, who previously worked as a photographer, has brought his camera to campus to capture some of those moments, he said.

Spend a little time with the two and it becomes apparent they have developed a back-and-forth banter that keeps them entertained while they work. Smay said Paulsen can be a bit of a control freak, and without skipping a beat, she embraces the idea with a chuckle.

"I do bark orders at him," she said. "Sometimes I have to rein him in."

Smay said he enjoys working with Paulsen "most of the time" and intentionally gives her a hard time. But they agree on this: If there is a job to be done, do it.

That's music to everyone's ears.