Staff Spotlight: Michael Riley
Mike Riley is a custodian at the college who most often works in the Science Center. In this interview, Riley shared stories from his life before Amherst and reflected on how he has learned and used the kindness that so many know him for.
Except where indicated by initials, all of the quotes in the profile are Riley’s. They have been lightly edited and rearranged to flow chronologically.
Working at Amherst
Caelen McQuilkin (CM): The first thing I wanted to ask you is, how long have you been working at the college?
Mike Riley (MR): I’ve been here for five years. I used to work at Amherst High School, across the way there, and I retired from there, and I saw an ad that said ‘part time job.’ I wasn’t ready to quit quite yet, so I decided to come over here and check it out. It’ll be five years in November — the Monday after Thanksgiving, I came here. And I love it here.
CM: What makes you love it?
MR: It starts with my colleagues. And the supervisors are so amazing. I’ve never worked for anyone like that before. I was kind of nervous about it when I first came here. I knew how to clean already, but they showed me how they do it. It was totally different. I started out in a dorm, they hired to me to work the night shift. [Today], I work the second shift, 2 [p.m.] to 10:30 [p.m.]. But I needed training, so they started me in the dorms… James, and across the way to Tyler and Marsh. That was my start.
And then I finally came here. I came to the Science Center, and I started seeing people, smiling, waving, saying hi. And they responded back. Professors are awesome here. Our students are the best. Every time they graduate, I say, ‘When you graduate, I’m leaving with you. I’m gonna go.’ But then I meet first-year people, and I interact with them, and then I say, ‘Okay. I’m gonna wait four years until you leave, and then I’m leaving.’ They’re awesome, the students here are very awesome. They give me respect, they’re always speaking to me. I haven’t seen one that doesn’t speak to me. In the Science Center, you see heads down, most of the time, typing on the computer. Doing their work. Sometimes they stop and get a break, and hang out with each other, and talk. But mostly, they are ‘bam.’ Banging it out, working hard… So that’s always awesome, that they take the time out. And, you know, sometimes they’re stressed — ‘aaghgh, I can’t do this, I’ve got a test, I’ve got a test’ — and I tell them, ‘This is what you signed up for. So go in there and do what you gotta do.’ I make them feel better about themselves, about doing their test, doing their theses or whatever they’re doing.
I like talking to them, you know, because I didn’t have the chance to go to college. And I have two daughters, one twenty, and one nineteen. They’re both in college in Springfield, and also they’re working. So that’s awesome. I never got the chance, but I get to see them go. I’m always bragging with the kids here [about] them. How good they’re doing.
I’ve been here for five years, and know everybody. I don’t know names, but everybody knows my name. Everybody knows my name here. There’s so many students, I know a few names, but then a lot of them I don’t know so I say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and they say ‘Hi Mike.’ I say okay, I need to find out his name. I need to find out her name. Then I forget the next day, cause there are so many kids. It’s fun for me working here, I’m 65 years old, but I love being around the students. They make me feel young and happy. They make me happy. So I make them happy too.
[For example,] a girl came to me today. She said she was supposed to have an interview with someone, but they had left, and she couldn’t get in. So I let her in the office… I called the person up, and let her talk to them on my phone. And she appreciated it. That’s what I do for people. I just do things. I’m here for them when they need me. To put it this way: I protect the herd.
Growing up in Onancock, Virginia
MR: This is how I am. This is how I was brought up by my family in Virginia. My grandmother always told me, ‘It don’t cost nothing to speak. And just smile at someone.’ And when you smile at someone, they’re gonna appreciate you more, because they see that you are a very friendly and very caring person. So I took that with me through life. That’s my motto. Be happy, and see others be happy.
When I was younger, I always was the same way. In high school — same way. I made friends with everybody. And that was in the 60s … we had just become desegregated. White and Black people going to school together, so everybody was nervous. Like, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to go to school with no white kids, I don’t want to go to school with no Black kids.’ I got there, and bam, I made friends with everybody.
I guess high school was my greatest time. Because I got to interact with different cultures, different people. I was a class clown. In those things that are like ‘most likely to succeed’ and all that — I was ‘most friendly.’
I played football. I was on the football team, and I loved that. I loved doing that. So instead of college, I went to the military after. But still, when I go home to Virginia, a lot of my friends passed away but a lot of them are still there. And they can’t wait to see me come home. You know, I had this nickname. All of the kids there had nicknames, but they don’t call them their nicknames anymore — except for me. Some people don’t even know my real name.
CM: What was your nickname?
MR: Frog Daddy.
CM: Is there a story behind that?
MR: Yeah. I was on the football team. I got hurt, and I used to hop off the field. So that’s why they called me ‘frog.’ And a bunch of the girls said, ‘Okay, frog daddy.’ I said ‘Oh, wow.’ So every time I go home, ‘Frog Daddy! You’re home. How you doing?’ All that.
CM: Did you like the nickname?
MR: Oh yeah, I loved it. My daughters now, when they get mad at me, ‘FROG DADDY!’
CM: That’s awesome.
MR: Then, after high school, I went to the military. Same thing — make them laugh. I made everybody calm. There were people that didn’t want to be there, just wanted to leave and run away. ‘You can’t do that,’ I said. ‘Just stick it out. This will be over soon, and then you can go back to your regular training.’ That’s what I always felt, this will be over soon. The army made me kind of what I am today, also. Because in the army, you get to meet different people from all over.
I was in Germany for four years. It was the best time of my life there … we’d go out and train for combat. I didn’t like it. But I did it. But then I got the job — I was a warehouse worker delivering furniture to the dependents that married. When the soldiers were married, and they would have their families come over and move into apartments … whoever was working in the office, they would write a schedule out of what people needed. So me and the guys, we had to deliver it. We had to pick it up, put it on the truck, and take it where we had to go.
It was me and three German guys. I couldn’t speak German, they couldn’t speak English. But we all found a way to communicate together … just talk slow. I kind of learned a little bit of German.
Moving to Amherst and Work at Amherst High School
MR: I moved up here in 1986. My brother lived here, and his wife and daughter … I wanted to come up on vacation. So I took off from my job in Virginia. I took off, and came up for two weeks. It was in September. And oh my goodness … [My brother] just drove me around, showing me Pelham, all over. And I think, ‘It’s so pretty here.’ I said, ‘I’m not leaving.’ And so I called my job. ‘I’m going to resign. I’m not coming back.’ That was in ’86, and I’ve been here since.
I’m from Virginia, country, and there’s nothing like this. Nothing like this. [Living in Amherst], I saw people there, met people. [My brother] introduced me to some friends of his. And they became good friends of mine, over time. And before long, they were asking him, ‘Aren’t you Mike’s brother?’ He was here already for like twenty years.
I stayed with [my brother and his wife] for a couple of months, until I got my own place. And I met my wife there, because she was in apartments up the hill. I was downhill. I used to come to catch the bus. I used to have to pass by her house, and she asked me to come in for tea one day. So I said ‘Okay.’ And we hit it off — I’ve been married for twenty three years.
And then in 2000, we bought a house in Springfield. That’s where we live now. We bought a house in Springfield, had our first daughter. And then we sold the house and moved to another house, had another daughter there … [my wife] had two sons already. [When I first met them] one was six, one was nine. One’s a court officer in Springfield, and one is a chef teacher in Franklin Tech in Greenfield.
The teachers [at Amherst High School] — awesome. Every year, [this theater teacher], he had some awesome musicals. Every year, he had it on my birthday, March 8th. So he’d say, ‘Mike, make sure you work on March 8th.’ I’d say ‘okay, I’ll be here. It’s my birthday, you know, but I’ll be here.’ So I went. And he said ‘bring your family with you.’ Every year — ‘Bring your family along with you, so they enjoy the show.’ They didn’t have to pay anything, just go in. So one birthday I went in, and I was outside cleaning. My daughters were like six or seven. And I was outside the auditorium. And she ran [out] ‘Mike, they want you onstage.’ I was like ‘what?’ ‘They want you onstage.’ So I went up there, and they said, ‘We just want to wish Mike a happy birthday.’ They had the curtain closed, and they opened the curtains. All the students that were performing were standing [onstage] and they had this big, long banner: ‘Happy Birthday Mike.’ And each one of them signed it. They gave me a cake, and flowers. I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I had tears. I couldn’t hold it. I love being around people. I’m a people person.
MR: When I’m home, I like to garden. Me and my wife will go out — we like to travel short distances, like Connecticut, down to the coast. We go up to Greenfield, we go to Vermont, to the Country Store. And we just do stuff together, when I’m not working. But most of the time I’m working. She says, ‘Where are we going this weekend?’ And I say, ‘I’m going to work.’
CM: What kind of things do you grow?
MR: I have the plants out there, on the windowsill. Those are my plants. But I grow — I have my little flower bed in the backyard. I grow tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, big tomatoes. Cucumbers, sometimes I go to the farm and get stuff. I don’t know what I have, I just put it there. Because when I was a kid, I was mostly living on a farm. And they would grow peanuts. Just having a garden, to see the garden grow, see the pretty things in there, and then you get to eat it before the fall comes.
And I love to cook — this is what I do best — on the grill. I love being on the grill, even in wintertime, I’m out there.
CM: What do you usually grill?
MR: Meat. Chicken, burgers, fish. I have this little basket I put my fish in so it won’t stick to the grill. Ribs. Saturday, I grilled lamb. And that was so good. I’ve never had it on a grill. It’s better than putting it in an oven … it’s more flavorful. The flavors just pop out.
CM: Wow that sounds really good. Have you been cooking for a long time?
MR: Oh yes. Since I was a kid. I used to watch my grandmother and my aunts and my mother. I used to see what they do — just go in the kitchen and see what they were doing. My favorite dish is chicken and dumplings, because they roll out the dough, and cut it in squares. I still make that, now, to perfection. I got it down. A lot of the other stuff, I wish I had learned more about. I can cook it, but it’s not like my mom’s or my grandmother’s. Except for my chicken and dumplings. That’s perfect. That’s the only thing. I can cook fried chicken or whatever, make mashed potatoes, but it’s not quite the piece that they have.
[In the future] I wanna go home. I’m gonna go back to Virginia. I kind of miss my family, because I have three brothers there, and three sisters. They’re all in Virginia — my mom, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces. Everybody’s in Virginia. Because my brother, he passed away two years ago. So, he left me here. He knew what he was doing, he left me in good hands. But we were here together for twenty years.