Longtime District 97 custodian Frank DiPaolo stands near the custodian closet on Friday, April 8, 2022, at Washington Irving Elementary School in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

For many staff and students at Irving School, Frank DiPaolo is more than the school’s custodian. The 51-year-old is known to steal the spotlight at the school’s talent shows with his martial arts skills or as DJ Frankie D taking song requests including the popular children’s hit “The Gummy Bear Song.” Beyond that, DiPaolo, who has worked at Irving for the last 20 years, is considered a pillar of the school, often remembered for his humor and easy-going personality. 

That’s why Principal John Hodge nominated DiPaolo for the 2022 Custodian of the Year, an annual contest sponsored by the uniform service company Cintas. Out of 2,200 nominations, DiPaolo recently ranked in the Top 10 and is up for the coveted title and a $10,000 cash prize. 

Hodge himself will be retiring from Irving, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave., at the close of the school year.

The voting period closes April 15 and a winner will be announced on or around the week of April 26, according to Cintas’ website. 

Hodge, who has worked alongside DiPaolo for years, said the custodian embodies the culture of Irving and Oak Park School District 97, helping create a “sense of belonging for everyone.” 

“He gets to know all of our students, but he especially makes a good connection with the students in our special education classrooms,” Hodge said of DiPaolo. “[He] is always a friendly face and is a positive mentor to those students. It’s nice to watch those students’ faces light up when Frank walks in the room or the way he acknowledges them in the hallway when they’re passing by.” 

DiPaolo loved school as a child because of his teachers and one particular custodian who always entertained his curious questions about the boiler room. 

“Back then, the boilers were outside the school, and there was a tunnel going underneath the school to the boiler room,” DiPaolo said, a tidbit he learned from that custodian. “It was just intriguing to me.” 

Now, DiPaolo finds himself in the same circumstance with his students. 

“Some kids here to this day ask me: ‘What’s down in that door?’ I’m like, ‘That’s where we get all the heat from and stuff like that,’” he said, smiling. 

Custodian Frank DiPaolo holds his set of work keys on Friday, April 8, 2022, at Washington Irving Elementary School in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hodge recognized DiPaolo’s work in making sure that the building was clean and safe for staff and students. From measuring the desks’ distances in each classroom to hanging up masking signs and marking hand sanitizer stations, DiPaolo and his team worked long hours to prep the classrooms and keep up with the mitigations.   

DiPaolo recalled the early days of the pandemic when the schools statewide and across the nation were abruptly closed. DiPaolo, who regularly visited the building for maintenance calls, said it was hard not being surrounded by the constant chatter of students or seeing them running up and down the hallways. 

“It was quiet, like oh my god,” he said, his voice softening. But once schools fully reopened, DiPaolo was excited. 

“Seeing them come back, and especially the kindergarteners because it’s their first day of school,” DiPaolo said about something he missed when schools were temporarily shut down. He shared further that he has enjoyed watching generations of young children return to the school as young adults and catching up with them. 

“Next thing you know, they’re coming back,” he said, adding that those former students are now in high school or college.  

About his award nomination, DiPaolo said, “I was pretty shocked. I’m just very humbled that I made the 10 finalists.” 

Custodian Frank DiPaolo stands near his banner in the hallway on Friday, April 8, 2022, at Washington Irving Elementary School in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

DiPaolo has worked in the district for 27 years, making stops at Longfellow Elementary School, 715 Highland Ave., and Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave., before settling at Irving. 

The son of Italian immigrants, DiPaolo credited his work ethic to his parents, especially his father who worked previously in construction. 

“Coming home from work full of mud at 6 [o’clock’] at night. Working hard, raising a family of four boys, working in the house,” he recalled. 

DiPaolo, who lives on the Northwest Side of Chicago, spoke of how he spends his time caring for his parents and teaching karate and mixed martial arts at least twice a week at a local studio. 

“We’re not just custodians,” said DiPaolo, who is a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo and Hapkido and has been practicing martial arts since he was 8. “Talk to them. See what else they are besides cleaning the school and picking up paper.” 

Vote for DiPaolo

To vote for Frank DiPaolo for Cintas 2022 Custodian of the Year, visit www.custodianoftheyear.com/custodian-of-the-year/. Voting ends April 15. 

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