It’s always been about the kids: Beloved Lyman Gilmore custodian retires after 18 years
Tony Negri would do anything to be near his daughter, Megan. When she moved with her mother to Grass Valley in 2001, Tony was willing to give up the 18 years he’d put in as a checker and deli manager at Safeway in San Mateo, relocate, and start his career over again. Jobs in Nevada County were scarce, but Tony was determined.
Despite having no experience, he applied to a custodial position at Lyman Gilmore Middle School in Grass Valley. However, when he showed up for the interview, he was told the position had been filled. But as he was walking out the door, the administrator suddenly stopped him.
“Why do you want this job so badly?” he asked. Tony explained that he would do anything to be a regular part of his daughter’s life, and before he walked out of the office that day he’d been hired. On June 25 of this year, 18 years later, Tony cleaned his last classroom, got into his car and began a new life chapter of retirement.
But that first day in 2001 still feels like yesterday, he said. Despite immense gratitude, initially the job was a challenge for Tony, who wasn’t used to the physical demands of maintaining a busy middle school.
“I didn’t like it at first — I was shocked by how much vandalism there was, despite being a typical middle school,” he said. “But I knew I was here for a reason. I began to realize that I could help kids — I could do my job and be a friend to the kids who might need one.”
Tony developed a keen eye for that one kid who seemed to be struggling emotionally, or sitting off by himself. But what most never knew, was that Tony was once that kid himself. His mother was murdered when he was 9 years old, and there is still no suspect or motive.
“You never know what a student might be going through at home — believe me, I get it,” he said. “I smile and say hi to everyone I see. For some, it may be the only smile they get that day.”
Glad that he was able to be more friend than authoritarian, over the years many students confided in Tony about issues at home, struggles in school or challenges with bullies. “It’s all about who you hang out with,” he’d tell them, “99 percent of the kids are good people.”
“I started late at Lyman Gilmore and didn’t know very many people,” said 14-year-old Kaden Neketin, who is headed to Nevada Union in the fall. “My friend and I sometimes asked him if we could help. He was the best janitor — he connected with all the students.”
Tony was always there with a sympathetic ear, say teachers, despite the daunting tasks of cleaning vandalized bathrooms, tackling carelessly strewn trash, scraping off food fight residue, sorting through the lost and found, and mopping up the occasional pool of vomit. All in a day’s work, he’d say.
“He loved the kids and they knew he loved them — he knew when someone was feeling blue,” said 30-year eighth grade science teacher Carolyn Sale. “He made students feel special. Sometimes Tony would give them money for lunch if they didn’t have anything to eat. He cleaned my room every day after classes were over and he became my best friend at school.”
At Tony’s retirement dinner, attendees ranged from fellow custodians to teachers’ aides to the superintendent — a tribute to his ability to connect with people from all walks of life. Even long-retired co-workers reportedly came back for the occasion.
“Tony is truly an inspiring man with a heart of gold — he has been the heart of Lyman Gilmore for so many years,” said Daniella Kasza. “It’s amazing to think how many of us in this community went to that school, and know him personally. I went there 14 years ago and we are still in contact. He is one of the sweetest people I have ever met and I am so thankful to know him.”
“I love it when kids come up to me years later and ask if I remember them, and most of the time I do,” he said. “I love hearing how they’re doing.”
Tony is looking forward to spending more time with his daughter, joining a hiking club and possibly visiting an old friend who lives at the southern tip of Spain, he said.
“When Tony walked into a classroom, it was like Norm in the TV show ‘Cheers,’” said Sale. “Everyone knew his name and the kids would run to him. If he comes back to visit, I’m sure kids will still run to him and surround him. He touched everybody.”
“I’m absolutely going to miss the staff,” said Tony. “But I’m going to miss the students most of all. For me, it’s always been about the kids.”