The North Bend Eagle

  Rick Hobza is in his final days at NBE.
Rick Hobza is in his final days as an NBE employee.

The caretaker: Hobza retiring after 36 years taking care of NBC

by Nathan Arneal
Posted 5/7/13

It’s pretty easy to make the argument that no one knows the buildings of North Bend Central like Rick Hobza.

Note: This is the unabridged version of a shorter story that was published in the May 8, 2013, print edition.

He graduated from the old three-story North Bend High School in 1965. Starting in 1977, he worked as a custodian in the high school building for 17 years. He then spent 18 years as the head of maintenance in the elementary school building. Becoming intimately familiar with your surroundings is a key part of the job, Hobza said.

“You’re always the custodian of the building,” he said, “and you better know that building because it’s talking to you. You have to listen to the building because it’ll tell you when it has a tummy ache or whatever. You have to be proactive on maintenance instead of reactive.”

After 36 years of listening to the school buildings of North Bend and fixing all the tummy aches, Hobza is ready to retire. He’s not sure when his last day will be, but it will be some time in June.

Hobza starting honing his handyman skills as a youth, working in Bill Vyhlidal’s auto mechanic’s shop at the age of 12. After high school he spent some time working for the North Bend trailer plant where he learned electrical wiring and plumbing.

Eventually he and his wife Jan opened a hardware store downtown in the space now occupied by the North Bend Eagle.

Business at the hardware store wasn’t booming, and Hobza took on plumbing and electrical jobs on the side.

While at a Jaycee meeting, teachers Lon Bohling and Ben Harvey told him of a maintenance opening at the high school.

“I figured what the heck,” Hobza recalled. “I’ll give it a try.”

Since he was too busy during the day, he interviewed in the evening at superintendant Francis Masten’s house, where he won the job sitting on superintendant’s couch.

As the years went on, a photography hobby became a side business. Soon Rick and Jan Hobza were driving all over the region every weekend shooting weddings.

In 1994, the Hobzas decided it was time for a change. Rick and Jan resigned from their jobs at NBC, where Jan was also employed as a secretary, sold their photography business and moved to Lincoln where Rick found work as a maintenance man at an apartment complex.

That didn’t last long.

“I wasn’t geared for the big city life,” Rick said, “so I said ‘I’m coming back to North Bend.’”

By December 1995, Rick was back working in a North Bend school building, this time as the head of maintenance at North Bend Elementary.

“I figured I was getting a little older,” Hobza said. “So why not try working with little kids. Working with big kids and little kids is a different ball game. I didn’t even know what to expect.”

Just like when he worked in the high school, the kids were quick to warm up to Hobza.

“You have to gain the respect of the kids,” Hobza said. “That’s what I always tried to do because if you gain their respect, they’ll feel ownership in the building. They’ll help you.”

At the time he started working there, NBE was a separate school district from the high school. That was about to change. In 1998 five nearby country grade schools merged with NBC and NBE to form one district. Hobza went from overseeing one building to six.

Since all the schools were part of one district, each building had to be equal. So Hobza spent the two weeks before the 1998-1999 school year hurriedly installing window air conditioners in the buildings that were still without air. The country schools weren’t used to having a full-time maintenance man at their service.

“A light was going to be changed out at Webster in the yard,” Hobza said, “and I showed up and they asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to fix that light.’ They go, ‘Right now? Usually we have to wait a month, month and a half for stuff to get fixed.’”

In 1999, the first of the closings began, as the Webster and Ames schools shut their doors for good. By 2004 all elementary students in the district were bussed to town for school. That process was not a fun one for Hobza.

“One of the saddest things I had to see was when the little feeder schools had to shut down,” he said. “When you run an auction you see parents and grandparents standing there. They went to school there and they thought their grandchildren and children would go to school there, and it was closing.”

Of course, the job has changed in the 36 years since Hobza started working for NBC. Besides the increased reliance on technology, safety and security are a much larger part of the job.

“My first job in the morning used to be to unlock all the doors,” Hobza said. “Now my job is to go around and make sure the doors are all locked. Security has changed.”

Like most jobs, Hobza’s best memories come from the the people he worked with. He enjoyed the camaraderie and practical jokes that went along with working with people like Terry Caddy, Fred Lambley, Ron Fittje, Lon Bohling and Ben Harvey.

He also enjoyed being in the school when a Tiger team qualified for a state tournament.

“There’s so much excitement in the building,” Hobza said. “That was like igniting a fire. Not only did you have the kids excited, but you had the parents excited, the community excited. Those memories really stuck in my head.”

Now, as Hobza prepares to leave NBE, the district is gearing up for another change after the passage of a bond issue earlier this year. As the resident expert on the buildings of NBC, Hobza has been a part of the planning meetings as additions are designed for both school buildings. Though he won’t be a part of the staff any more, Hobza will keep a keen eye on the new additions.

“We don’t have any plans on leaving North Bend because it’s a great community,” Hobza said. “We like what’s going on with all the new additions and we want to be involved in that. I really enjoy the way the concept is coming together. It’s going to be very, very beneficial to the survival of North Bend.”

For a few weeks now, Hobza has been training one of his replacements at NBE, Galen Uhing. Like Hobza, Uhing comes from a background as an auto mechanic. Hobza said Uhing will do a great job watching over the elementary building.

“When I took care of a building, I wanted to leave it in better shape than when I found it,” Hobza said. “I am happy to leave it to somebody that will take care of it, actually be the custodian of it, or the caretaker. I call it the caretaker because you’re taking care of the building.”

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