"William 'Bill' Crawford was an unimpressive figure, one you could easily
overlook during a hectic day at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Mr. Crawford, as
most of us referred to him back in the late 1970s, was our squadron janitor.
While we cadets busied ourselves preparing for academic exams, athletic
events, Saturday morning parades, and room inspections -- or never -- ending
leadership classes-Bill quietly moved about the squadron mopping and buffing
floors, emptying trash cans, cleaning toilets, or just tidying up the mess
100 college-age kids can leave in a dormitory.
Sadly, and for many years, few of us gave him much notice, rendering little
more than a passing nod or throwing a curt, "G'morning!" in his direction as
we hurried off to our daily duties. Why? Perhaps it was because of the way
he did his job -- he always kept the squadron area spotlessly clean, even
the toilets and showers gleamed. Frankly, he did his job so well, none of us
had to notice or get involved. After all, cleaning toilets was his job, not
Maybe it was his physical appearance that made him disappear into the
background. Bill didn't move very quickly, and in fact, you could say he
even shuffled a bit, as if he suffered from some sort of injury. His gray
hair and wrinkled face made him appear ancient to a group of young cadets.
And his crooked smile, well, it looked a little funny. Face it, Bill was an
old man working in a young person's world. What did he have to offer us on a
Maybe it was Mr. Crawford's personality that rendered him almost invisible
to the young people around him. Bill was shy, almost painfully so. He seldom
spoke to a cadet unless they addressed him first, and that didn't happen
very often. Our janitor always buried himself in his work, moving about with
stooped shoulders, a quiet gait, and an averted gaze. If he noticed the
hustle and bustle of cadet life around him, it was hard to tell. For
whatever reason, Bill blended into the woodwork and became just another
fixture around the squadron. The Academy, one of our nation's premier
leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn till dusk. And Mr.
Crawford... well, he was just a janitor.
That changed one fall Saturday afternoon in 1976. I was reading a book about
World War II and the tough Allied ground campaign in Italy, when I stumbled
across an incredible story.
On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford from Colorado, assigned to
the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on
Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy.
William Crawford's Medal of Honor Citation.
William Crawford's Medal of Honor Citation.
The words on the page leapt out at me, "in the face of intense and
overwhelming hostile fire... with no regard for personal safety.. on his
own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy
positions." It continued, "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk
of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United
"Holy cow," I said to my roommate, "you're not going to believe this, but I
think our janitor is a Medal of Honor recipient." We all knew Mr. Crawford
was a World War II Army vet, but that didn't keep my friend from looking at
me as if I was some sort of alien being. Nonetheless, we couldn't wait to
ask Bill about the story.
We met Mr. Crawford bright and early Monday and showed him the page in
question from the book, anticipation and doubt on our faces. He stared at it
for a few silent moments and then quietly uttered something like, "Yep,
that's me." Mouths agape, my roommate and I looked at one another, then at
the book, and quickly back at our janitor. Almost at once, we both
stuttered, "Why didn't you ever tell us about it?" He slowly replied after
some thought, "That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago."
I guess we were all at a loss for words after that. We had to hurry off to
class and Bill, well, he had chores to attend to.
After that brief exchange, things were never again the same around our
squadron. Word spread like wildfire among the cadets that we had a hero in
our midst -- Mr. Crawford, our janitor, had been bestowed The Medal! Cadets
who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a
smile and a respectful, "Good morning, Mr. Crawford."
Those who had before left a mess for the "janitor" to clean up, started
taking it upon themselves to put things in order. Cadets routinely stopped
to talk to Bill throughout the day and we even began inviting him to our
formal squadron functions. He'd show up dressed in a conservative dark suit
and quietly talk to those who approached him, the only sign of his heroics
being a simple blue, star-spangled lapel pin. Almost overnight, Bill went
from being a simple fixture in our squadron to one of our teammates.
Mr. Crawford changed too, but you had to look closely to notice the
difference. After that fall day in 1976, he seemed to move with more
purpose, his shoulders didn't seem to be as stooped, he met our greetings
with a direct gaze and a stronger "good morning" in return, and he flashed
his crooked smile more often. The squadron gleamed as always, but everyone
now seemed to notice it more. Bill even got to know most of us by our first
names, something that didn't happen often at the Academy. While no one ever
formally acknowledged the change, I think we became Bill's cadets and his
As often happens in life, events sweep us away from those in our past. The
last time I saw Bill was on graduation day in June 1977. As I walked out of
the squadron for the last time, he shook my hand and simply said, "Good
luck, young man." With that, I embarked on a career that has been truly
lucky and blessed.
Mr. Crawford continued to work at the Academy and eventually retired in his
native Colorado, one of four Medal of Honor recipients who lived in the
small town of Pueblo.
A wise person once said, "It's not life that's important, but those you meet
along the way that make the difference." Bill was one who made a difference
for me. Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable
leadership lessons, and I think of him often."