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IU Northwest janitor by day; poet by night

A little-known fact about Hollis Donald is his writing portfolio, concern for others

Thursday Sep 04, 2014

If you’ve ever been visited by janitor Hollis Donald in your work space as he makes his rounds of campus clean-up and repairs at Indiana University Northwest, you may have wondered just what he’s all about.

The sunglasses he wears in every kind of light seem to shroud him in mystery. Because he is quiet and self-admittedly bashful, Donald may at first appear to be a man of little words when in fact, the opposite is true. Donald has much to say, and if you are fortunate, you may have been treated to one of his many poems that he sometimes chooses to share.

It’s actually a fairly rare occurrence to get a poetry gift from Donald. He admits to writing volumes but he is reserved about sharing his writing with the world. He shares his poems when he feels his reflections might benefit someone else or he simply decides that he wants to be heard.

“I’ve been writing since I could use a pen,” Donald said. He explained that as a child, he used writing as a way of making sense of things that troubled him. Violence and injustice. Tragedy and unfairness. Donald would observe things around him and put his reflections on paper.

Once, his writing got him in a bit of light-hearted trouble. When his friends were trying to get the affections of certain girls, they’d ask Donald to write their letters for them. This plan backfired when the girls learned the real truth, Donald disclosed, drawing the ire of the gentlemen who had asked the favor. 

A lifelong Gary resident, Donald graduated from Gary Roosevelt High School and later earned a certificate as an electronics technician. A bachelor, Donald enjoys his work and has always enjoyed a variety of activities.

He once started a small scale print shop but says he had to close it because he couldn’t keep up with the business. He also served as an assistant pastor for 10 years as a kid. He was nicknamed, “Dr. Hollis” because, as he says, “I could show some of the experienced ministers and pastors things they couldn’t see.”

Donald dabbles not just in poetry, but songs and music, too. He’s not a musician, he says, but he does sometimes put words to music that just seem to flow to his keyboards and guitars.

Perhaps music is too outward of an expression for introverted Donald to be comfortable. A record company did once approach him about working with them to assemble music groups. He didn’t accept.

Donald’s approach to influencing the folks he meets is subtle, but powerful. He sometimes uses his writing to help someone else through a hard time and help them see a doorway through a problem that they may not see.

“I enjoy digging out of people the best they can ever be,” he said.

Donald comes from a spiritual family of six. Specifically, his siblings are made up of two sets of twins and a set of triplets. Donald says his own twin was the outgoing one in the family while Donald avoided attention. Sadly, Donald lost both of his parents as a young boy as well as three of his siblings.

He fondly remembers his father’s integrity and his mother’s generosity, values which they worked hard to instill in their children.

“From her, I got a deep concern for other people,” Donald said. “From him, I got integrity. Keep your word. He always insisted on that.”

One of the endeavors that Donald is clearly proud of, was the day he decided to make a “human connection” between IU Northwest’s leader, Chancellor William J. Lowe, and each person in the campus community.

In June, he circulated a giant Father’s Day card and asked students, staff and faculty members to write a note to Dr. Lowe. He explained that he did this as a way of making a “human connection” between a leader and the people he serves. He succeeded, gleaning much praise from those in the campus community, which appreciated the opportunity to express themselves, and Dr. Lowe, who was clearly touched by the sentiment.

Donald said it was “an amazing experience, connecting students to their leader in this way.”

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