It’s a quintessential Minnesota night on the east side of St. Paul. Inside Gustafson-Phalen Arena, a multinational swarm of children practice their skating. Preschoolers flop on the ice and slash about with the aid of walkers, preparing for the day they will appear in this night’s marquee event, playing for the Johnson High Governors.
Stationed at the door inside the cinder-block lobby is Mr. Governor himself, Scotty Pekarek, directing incoming traffic to the appropriate locker rooms. He’s been a fixture here since the 1970s, when he began volunteering as a student for hockey, football, and baseball.
“The kids just love him,” says Johnson hockey coach Moose Younghans. “Everybody loves him.”
By day, he’s a janitor at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts downtown. “Hard labor job, good people,” he says of his daytime gig, consolidating his thoughts in the clipped, succinct manner that is his way of speech. By night, Gustafson-Phalen is his home. As he stops to take a hug from a teen girl passing by, it’s apparent it is a loving one.
His work tonight will not be the kind meant for glory. He will arrange tables, fetch water, collect pucks. “Sweep up, make sure it stays clean,” he says. “I do everything here.”
Yet Pekarek finds joy in assisting with the little things. If America is increasingly becoming a land of takers, he’s the East Side’s antidote, the man who relishes in the power of giving. “I love to help people,” he says. “I love to make a difference in life.”
Johnson clearly appreciates that difference. Inside the nearby school is a trophy case in his honor, filled with photos and his inspirational wisdom. Sample: “I tell the kid, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’”
And Pekarek is grateful for what Johnson has given him in return, like the will to donate thousands of hours across years of cold winter nights, or finding contentment and value in the smallest tasks.
“I just wanted to come back and have fun. They give me love. They give me confidence, all the stuff to make it in life. All my dreams came true through the school.”
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