“They’re my kids,” John Tiedemann, the white-haired, gentle-mannered North Mountain custodian, said.
But he was not talking about his two biological children — rather the 480 freshmen living in the residence halls he cares for.
While he only cleans 20 of the bathrooms in North Mountain, he said he makes a point to reach out to everyone who lives there.
“While my job as a custodian is important and valuable, it’s not the primary reason I do this job,” Tiedemann said. “I want to make a difference in their lives.”
Tiedemann said most of his day consists of lots of little acts of kindness. Art and design sophomore and former North Mountain resident Cristina Golubovich said he bought her SloDoCo donuts out of the kindness of his heart.
“The first time he did it, he told me he had to show me something in the custodian’s closet down the hall,” Golubovich said. “When we got there, he pulled out an individual donut box and handed it to me. It was seriously one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done.”
Math sophomore Sidra Knox also lived in North Mountain last year. Being a Southern California native, she said she did not have a rain jacket and was afraid to get her dress wet for a fundraiser.
“John, being the sweetheart that he is, let me borrow his bright yellow raincoat for a whole week, and even offered to let me keep it for longer if I needed,” Knox said. “Every time I get to see John, my day becomes infinitely better.”
Even after moving off-campus, Knox and Golubovich said they both stayed in touch with Tiedemann.
“That’s the hardest part of my job, when the kids leave,” Tiedemann said.
But each year, he starts from scratch, giving every new student his all.
Reaching beyond North Mountain
It is not just the students of North Mountain that Tiedemann has connected with.
“The first time I met John, I saw him from far away, walking on the second floor,” Knox said. “All of a sudden, he pulled something out of his pocket, threw it into the air, and a bird swooped down and caught it before it landed.”
As he does his rounds, Tiedemann throws peanuts for the birds of North Mountain.
“I call them my wingmen,” Tiedemann said. “Some of them I can feed by hand. The rest I just throw it, and they can catch it in mid-air. Sometimes it gets a little annoying. I’ve created quite a following.” Tiedemann said it without looking even the least bit annoyed.
Mechanical engineering sophomore and former North Mountain resident Justin Maddox wrote an essay about the custodian for his English class.
“I think the prompt was to write about someone [who’s] making a change in their community,” Maddox said. “As soon as I got that prompt, I knew who I was going to write it about right away.”
Maddox described Tiedemann helping him cope with the loss of a close friend and helping him mature into the person he is today.
“It definitely would have taken me longer to mature here if I hadn’t met him,” Maddox said.
On the day of his friend’s passing, Tiedemann could sense something was off with Maddox.
“John saw me and instantly knew something was wrong, so he came over to console me,” Maddox said. “He sat with me for over an hour, apologizing, sympathizing, and relating to similar experiences he has had with death. I came away from our talk feeling as if I had just spoken to a family member.”
Big or small, his actions have certainly made a change in his community. He left a 28-year career in business to be at Cal Poly, where he said he feels he is doing the work he was always meant to do.
“Sometimes it’s just the little things that make people’s day,” Tiedemann said. “Maybe in the overall scheme of things it’s not that big a deal, but for somebody, at the right time, maybe it is a big deal.”