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Bill Koutsky: The Benefactor

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City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Bill Koutsky likes to say he grew up in a Winona State University parking lot. What he means is that his childhood home used to stand where there’s nothing but asphalt in front of the wellness center now. But the notion that he sprang, fully formed, from the earth beneath Winona State isn’t too far from the public’s impression of him.

His current home is just a few blocks away from the school—the place where he studied mass comm, the place where he earned a college degree. He and WSU are inexorably tied.

A few years ago, most students knew him only as Bill the Custodian. He walked around the Performing Arts Center in sweatshirt and jeans, ready with a boisterous greeting and the keys to locked doors. Few knew his storied history as a local radio personality, or that he’d up and quit the minute he realized he couldn’t sit through another corporate meeting.

He’d picked up janitorial work on a whim, guaranteeing he’d go without benefits for a while if they’d just give him two weeks to learn the ropes. His goal had been to mind his own business, do a little work, and go home. He never intended to get involved with the students.

He retired 12 years later, knowing nearly every single college kid who ever set foot in that building. He used to floor the faculty and administration by being able to rattle off every name and every hometown of every student who passed, knowing their gifts and their quirks and their dreams. He was simply amazed by how talented they all were, and how deserving. He never forgot because he couldn’t.

Sometimes, he says, he’d sit there watching the plays, the concerts, the dance shows, and feel like he “was one of their parents.” He would feel the glow of pride, of love.

Most students never knew about the scholarship fund he set up in his and his uncle’s names—each worth a thousand dollars for students studying theater and dance. He’s distributed 14 or 15 of them by now, powered mostly by some stocks he turned over to the school to distribute to scholars in need.

Most don’t know how he responded when the administrators at Winona State asked him why he wanted to do all this—that he just felt it was “important” that these people he had come to know and care about be able to finish school and claim their destinies.

They don’t know how he choked up when he met one of his scholars at a school breakfast. They don’t know how he felt when the waitress he’d been encouraging to go back to school for ages told him she finally graduated. They don’t know what he could be doing if he wasn’t so busy doing things for them.

They just knew him as Bill—the smiley guy with his corny jokes who told them one day, they’d have the moon.

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.