Unsung school heroes
This is the second article in an ongoing series that seeks to showcase some of our schools’ unsung heroes. In my 10 years as an education reporter and as a former educator, and in my almost 19 years as a parent, I have seen many amazing educators honored with well-deserved pomp and circumstance. They each will be the first to tell you that they share their honors with their colleagues, that they could not do what they do each day without the support of so many. It is my goal during this school year to shed some much-needed light on those employees working behind the scenes in Cranston schools who may not receive the spotlight, but for whom it is also well-deserved.
George Nardolillo told me that he was a little bit nervous as we sat down for our interview at Western Hills Middle School, just a day before he wrapped up his tenure as a second shift custodian at the school, a position he’s held proudly for more than two decades. I had been alerted to the fact that George was retiring by my youngest daughter, a student at the school who had just interviewed him for the school newspaper.
“Mom, he comes in early for his shift every day, just to see the kids,” she said, as she talked about how much she and the other students would be missing him when he left. The more she talked about George, the more I knew that he was a good fit for my Unsung Heroes series.
Sure enough, I met up with George at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, a half hour before his shift would begin, and we sat down to talk about his 21 years on the job at Western Hills and his vast life experiences before that. At 87 years old, George had a sparkle to his personality, and yet a humbleness and a kindness about him that was evident as we spoke. An Italian immigrant, who arrived in Cranston in 1973 from Prata Sannita, he has a proud Italian accent and a strong work ethic that came from hard work beginning at a young age.
“I started working when I was 16 on a farm in Switzerland,” he said. “I would milk the cows at four o’clock in the morning. Sometimes it was so cold, my face would freeze and it would crack. At 21 I joined the Italian army. I was in the army for 18 months. I was a plaster man for 14 years.”
Since coming to the United States, George has always worked second shift, starting at Cranston Print Works in 1973 and staying there until it closed in 1995. In 1997 he began working for the Cranston School Department, first going between both Eden Park and Peters, and then arriving at Western Hills Middle School, where he has been ever since.
“I see a lot of the kids, I like them a lot,” he said. “I like working in a school so much. The job is not hard because I have worked so hard all of my life. The job is a piece of cake. I could work here another ten years. I get respect from everybody and I have respect for the teachers and the principal.”
Even though George has worked second shift at WHMS, he didn’t sit back on his laurels when he was home during the early part of the day.
“I had a landscaping business, it was not much, maybe 10 or 15 customers I took care of,” he said.
It seems that hard work is just a part of who he is and what he does, although he brushes off the accolades when I express my amazement at all he has done and how hard he has worked in his lifetime.
As much as George enjoys his job at the school, he was set to retire several years ago, but changed his mind when he unexpectedly lost his wife Amalia. They married in 1964. His sadness made him reconsider retirement for at least a few more years.
“I thought, why be at home alone,” he said. “When I come here I forget about everything for a little while.”
George is the father of two, grandfather of five, and he has four siblings, still in Italy. His pride in his family is evident when he speaks about them, and a trip to his home country is something he plans on once he adjusts to the new routines of retirement, something he knows will take some getting used to.
“Some of the teachers here, I have worked with them 18 or 20 years,” he said. “I will miss them. I will miss the kids. They always do a good job for me. If the teachers want something from me, I do it right away.”
As much as George will miss his colleagues at Western Hills Middle School, it seems that they will miss him just as much, or maybe even more. When asked for some thoughts about George during his final week, the messages each had a common theme to them, reflecting on his dedication, his work ethic, his kindness, his loyalty and his love of family.
“He brought a touch of Italy to us,” said Shirley Lombardi.
For those who have known him over the years, his leaving will leave a void in the fabric of the Western Hills community.
Cheryl Merluzzo has known George for the duration of his time at Western Hills.
“I have known George for over 20 years. He always did his job with a smile and joke everyday for all these years,” she wrote in an email. “He also worked for me outside of school. He helped me when I needed help with physical outdoor work. He put all his own personal life aside and was there to help me. He is always someone I could count on in school. He fixed things that I was about to throw out. Mr. Fix it! Mr. Dependable! Mr. Happy everyday! Always the best! I will certainly miss him everyday! Love him!”
Her words were reflected time and time again, as people came forward with their messages about George and his impact on Western Hills.
“George is always a gentleman, sweet, kind, and caring about those around him. He always has a smile on his face, an effusive greeting, and a positive word,” said Assistant Principal Suzanne Coutu.
Amanda Lyons agreed.
“George always greets you with a smile and ‘how you do,’” she said.
“George is one of the nicest people in Cranston Public Schools. He always has a smile on his face and goes out of his way to make sure that he takes care of Western Hills Middle School. I have always enjoyed talking to him about his family. It is clear that he is proud of them and they bring him great joy. I wish Georgie all the best and he will be missed by all of us,” said Principal Tim Vesey.
According to George himself, it’s not far out of the realm of possibility that full-on retirement might just be too much to adjust to right away, even at 87 years old. The thought of not working at all doesn’t seem to sit quite right just yet.
“I might get a two or three-hour a day job,” he said, and I laughed, again expressing my amazement at his work ethic.
“I am thankful God gave me the opportunity to do it all,” George said. “A lot of people want to do things, and they can’t. I go to mass every Saturday night at 5:30 and I thank God. I say, ‘Thank you God, I’ve never, never been sick. I’m alive and I am so healthy.’”
If you have an Unsung Hero you’d like me to feature from a Cranston school, please email me with the details at email@example.com.