The last day on the job often is the most difficult for a retiree, but for Tom Baker, a 41-year employee as a custodian for the Hilliard City Schools, that most difficult day was 4 1/2 years ago.

"The hardest day for me was the day after the Newtown shootings," said Baker, referring to the slayings of 20 children and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

"That next day, every time I looked in a classroom and at the kids, I was thinking of how those kids were cowering."

It took about a week for him to push the images out of his mind, he said.

Such a reaction came as no surprise to the staff at Heritage Middle School, 5670 Scioto Darby Road, where Baker locked the doors and shut off the lights for the last time May 26.

"Tom is a humble man who quietly cared for Hilliard students and staff for 41 years," said Heritage teacher Linda Reasinger.

She further described Baker as "kind-hearted, gracious and giving."

When students return to classes from summer break in August, it will the first time -- save for one year -- Baker has not been part of the first day of school in Hilliard since 1963.

He said he started first grade that fall -- the district did not have kindergarten then -- and he did not miss the first day of school as a student through his graduation from Hilliard High School.

"I've always looked forward to that first day of school as a student and then even on the job," he said. "A lot of work gets done in the summer: all the repairs, the painting and the scrubbing. The school looks great and you start anticipating that first day when the kids come back."

After graduating from Hilliard High School in 1975, Baker briefly worked a housekeeping job at Ohio State University, thus missing only one "first day" in Hilliard in 1975.

America was celebrating its bicentennial when Baker began his career in Hilliard in July 1976, at a time when the district had six elementary schools -- Avery, Beacon, Brown, Hilliard, J.W.Reason and Ridgewood -- along with Britton Junior High School, Hilliard Junior High School and Hilliard High School.

"In many ways, my job is easier than it was when I began," Baker said.

At one time, his tasks included cutting grass at school buildings; today, the district has a team of landscapers.

"The equipment is better these days; you can ride on floor-waxing machines ... but I'm still old school and use a bucket and mop," he said.

Other jobs no longer were on his to-do list.

"No more cleaning up cigarette butts," he said.

Hilliard High School once had a designated smoking area where cigarette butts were discarded on the ground.

"The faculty lounge could be messy that way, too," he said.

Technology is among the biggest changes he has seen.

Once upon a time, a principal or teacher had to use an intercom heard throughout the building to summon Baker, but in recent years, he carried a radio.

Students' use of technology has changed, too.

"Students don't have their arms full of textbooks anymore ... they have computers," he said.

But Baker said he still often was called upon to unjam lockers and unstick jacket zippers.

Baker said he first worked the night shift at Hilliard High School, which is now Memorial Middle School at 5600 Scioto Darby Road.

In 1983, a day shift became available and he began working at Beacon Elementary School, 3600 Lacon Road.

After time at Avery Elementary School, 4388 Avery Road, Baker was among the staff members who helped open Hilliard Station Sixth Grade School at 3859 Main St. in 1991. Two years later, he helped open Hilliard Crossing and Norwich elementary schools and remained on Crossing's staff.

His stint at Crossing, 3340 Hilliard-Rome Road, was the longest until he moved to Heritage in 2014.

Baker also is known for helping teach students about the American Civil War.

An avid re-enactor, he sometimes shared his knowledge of the conflict, even demonstrating Civil War-era uniforms and weaponry as part of specially planned events at the schools.

Baker said he began considering retirement only about a year ago and decided that after turning 60, it was time.

"You never know how many good years you have left," he said.

This summer, he will take to the skies for the first time.

"I've never flown on an airplane before," he said.

Baker and his son, Nathan, a 2002 Darby High School graduate and a school teacher in Chillicothe, will fly to California.

Baker said he also would have more time to devote to his hobby of Civil War re-enacting.

"I'll miss the kids and all the wonderful people here, but I think I'm ready to go," he said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo