Mention “Mr. Diggs” at Silver Spring Jewish Center, and everyone’s immediate reaction is, “He’s amazing.” Wendell Diggs has been working at the Orthodox synagogue in Kemp Mill as a part-time custodian since 1973.
“I was always working … because I didn’t have a special trade,” says Diggs, 82, winding up another day at the synagogue. “I had to do what I could do with my hands in order to give my family a better life. And I did that.”
His connection with Silver Spring Jewish Center began the day he first walked by the synagogue on Arcola Avenue.
“I was living up on Norbeck Road, and I lost my driver’s license and I used to have to walk from Georgia Avenue to Kemp Mill Elementary. I was the manager over there,” says Diggs, who worked full-time for Montgomery County Public Schools for 42 years. “Anyway, I come in [to the synagogue] and I got a job working part-time.”
He started as a handyman, working five days a week for $1.40 per hour — $8.11 in today’s dollars. He built cubbies and tables, cut the grass, and hired the painter who painted the synagogue’s classrooms green, yellow, blue and red. Eventually, he became the maintenance supervisor.
He says he’s gotten along well with the Jews in the community, and watched Rabbi Herzel Kranz’s children and grandchildren grow up. In the greater Kemp Mill area, he’s done electrician and plumbing work in people’s homes. And along the way, he learned about Jewish customs.
“I remember the first time I worked a bar mitzvah here. Little kids was drinking liquor at 13!” he says. “I was shocked! I said, “What! Boy, you can’t have liquor, you’re 13!’ He said, ‘Yes I can, today’s my bar mitzvah day, I’m grown.’”
The first time Diggs saw a brit milah was a shock. And he’s learned about what’s considered kosher meat.
“I like pork chops!” he says, laughing. “But then again, I don’t discriminate against anything. If you feel that’s OK with you, just you go do your thing and I’ll do mine and we’ll get along just fine.”
Respect is an important tenet for Diggs, who says he grew up with “colored” and “white” signs segregating Wheaton.
“I’ve been on the end where I’ve been in a store and somebody’s been waiting on me and a white person walked up, they push my stuff aside and waited on them. I’ve lived with all that,” Diggs says. “I can tell when somebody’s racist. You don’t have to say a word to me. All you have to do is look and I can tell by the way you’re looking at me that you feel I’m not equal to you.”
He says he’s gotten along well with Kranz and his family, who’ve always called him “Mr. Diggs.”
“But as for the relationship with Jewish people, I’ve got along great with ‘em,” he says, noting that he avoids talking about religion, money, politics and race. “You don’t talk those things, you can get along with almost anybody. Because all you got to do is agree to disagree.”
A ninth grade dropout with his GED, Diggs has been working since he was 13 years old. He also spent six years in the Marine Corps starting at age 18.
“Everything else I got I learned by working with people,” Diggs says. He has a thirst for knowledge, and has observed experts so he can learn how to do their jobs. During his time with Montgomery County Public Schools, he took and passed 14 classes on subjects including basic plumbing, time management and air conditioning. “If you stop learning, you stop growing.”
Diggs says working at Silver Spring Jewish Center for so long hasn’t been about the money. He actually retired in 1999, but says the staff convinced him to stay on for two days a week, doing jobs like replacing old floor tile and fixing doors. He uses the extra money for perks like vacations and material things, but advises never to stake a big purchase — a house or car — on part-time work.
“Mostly you should take a part-time job to get the extra things that your full-time job can’t buy. You should never get in anything that your full-time job can’t cover. Because you never know when a part-time job’s gonna give up or you’re going to get tired.”
The Leisure World resident likes to spend his time hunting, fishing and playing golf. But he still works at the synagogue because it “keeps your mind tuned up,” he says. And there’s only so much fishing and golfing one person can do.
“I take pleasure in doing things and see it come to an end and see it looks good. Then you’re doing a good job. That’s as much to me if you pay me $1,000 an hour.”