Frank DiPaolo remembers his mom being a big Elvis Presley fan, playing the singer’s music constantly when he was a little kid growing up on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
DiPaolo would become an Elvis fan himself as an adult. Who else but a fan would dress up as the rock-and-roll legend to perform for Oak Park kids and their parents?
Irving Elementary School Principal John Hodge recalls the recent end-of-the-year celebration where DiPaolo, one of Irving’s building engineers, dressed up and danced for students.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give him a 10. He had the moves and everything. I think he’s ready for Graceland,” Hodge quipped.
DiPaolo has worked in District 97 for 17 years, 12 of those at Irving, 1125 S. Cuyler. In August, DiPaolo, 41, received a Those Who Excel Award from the Illinois State Board of Education for “meritorious service.” He was nominated last spring by the Irving PTO. Along with his work in helping to keep Irving — one of the oldest buildings in the district — up and running, the PTO nominated him because of his positive interactions with the kids.
According to the PTO email, “All of the students know him, and he knows each of them, treating each student individually and with respect. … He goes out of his way to assist and develop relationships with our special needs students. In fundraising, he has offered martial arts instruction as a silent auction item, choreographed dance routines for many contests, and coordinated the setup of numerous special events.”
The group also noted his school spirit in dressing up as Elvis.
DiPaolo said he likes working with the kids, especially in teaching them the martial arts. He first learned karate as a kid himself. His neighbor started teaching DiPaolo and his friends karate in his basement. The little martial arts school continued to grow, DiPaolo, who now teaches alongside his instructor, said.
The Irving custodian is a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo and Hapkido and has competed in more than 200 tournaments. He’s put on martial arts shows at Irving and has also taught some of the kids. DiPaolo recalled being a shy kid but says martial arts brought him out of his shell. As an instructor, he’s seen that same change in his students over the years.
“I kind of kept to myself, but when I got into martial arts, it kind of brought me out,” he said. “It brings some of the kids out who are shy and don’t talk much. I’ve seen them grow up through the years. They’ve changed. They’re more talkative and they appreciate the sport, the discipline.”
Prior to coming to D97 and Longfellow’s custodial staff, DiPaolo worked as a laborer in Chicago. He jumped at the chance to work in a school setting when the D97 job became open.
“I enjoy being around students and kids because I teach martial arts. So when this job opened up, I applied,” DiPaolo recalled.
He said he always wanted to work in a trade. His dad was a construction worker; his mom a factory worker making gardening tools. Both parents are Italian immigrants, coming to the United States in the 1950s. They had three sons, DiPaolo being the youngest.
DiPaolo said he sees himself as more than just a custodian. Principal Hodge echoed the sentiment, saying he encourages every staff member to see themselves as the kids’ teachers. A father of one adult son, DiPaolo said he enjoys working in D97 and plans to continue there for many years to come.
“I enjoy working here at Irving. I do enjoy keeping the school safe and clean,” he said. “I try to give more to the kids, and try to learn all of their names as best as I can. And they know me when they come into the school.”