Last winter, this newspaper set out to find the longest-tenured employee of any North Fork school district.
Turns out that person wasn’t a teacher, or an administrator. It was 79-year-old Carl James, head custodian at Pulaski Street School in Riverhead. The resulting News-Review article, published Dec. 12, 2013, focused on Mr. James’ career and his perseverance, but also indicated he was considering retirement. And he was serious this time.
In response, dozens of former students posted comments at riverheadnewsreview.com and on Facebook, sharing their very many heartfelt memories about Mr. James, who worked tirelessly to make the school a comfortable place for children to learn. And he always greeted them with a smile.
“I remember Carl getting our entire fourth-grade class ice cream,” Trevor Foden wrote.
“A true Riverhead treasure! I loved working with him at Pulaski,” Peggy Kelly Gaare recalled. “Always a smile, the short-sleeved, rolled-up shirt and a pace that no one could match.”
“I have been out of school 40 years and remember him well,” added John Donahue. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Mr. James retired in June after working in the same building for nearly 54 years — longer than any other school employee from Wading River to Orient.
The Riverhead native also graduated from the school when it was the district’s high school and it’s the same place where he fell in love with his wife, Rose Cherry.
The pride Mr. James always took in his work illustrates the highest level of dedication one serving their community can exhibit. That type of devotion is what makes Mr. James the News-Review’s Public Servant of the Year for 2014.
The Riverhead Chamber of Commerce also honored Mr. James last month with its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Pat Snyder, executive director at East End Arts in Riverhead, presented the award and said: “Our community is a better place because of you.”
After graduating from Riverhead High School, Mr. James joined the U.S. Army and toured Europe with his unit. After serving for two years, he returned to Riverhead.
Although he wanted to become an electrician, he accepted the custodian job at the high school when he was 23 years old.
“I was hired right on the spot in the hallway,” Mr. James told the News-Review. “They asked if I could start the next day. I said, ‘I can start today.’ ”
His first responsibilities, Mr. James recalled, included the hallway with rooms 112 through 118. A bathroom was also added to his workload. After about 12 years, he was promoted to head custodian and later started a professional office cleaning business on the side. That folded in 1993, however, when downtown offices began to close in a struggling economy.
Although Mr. James told the News-Review last year he was thinking about retiring, his staff of seven custodians fondly pressured him to stay on.
“I might just say, ‘OK. That’s enough,’ ” Mr. James said at the time about retiring at the end of last school year. “But if things look promising and upbeat, I may say, ‘One more,’ like I have been saying for the last 20 years.”
Mr. James ultimately did retire in June and was surrounded by family and friends as the school board honored his achievements.
“Thank you” is all he uttered as people hugged and kissed throughout the ceremony.
The Rev. Charles Coverdale of First Baptist Church in Riverhead described Mr. James as an active supporter and leading member of the church. He also called Mr. James “a treasure that belongs to the entire town.”
“Even now that he’s retired, he’s still always been helpful and sharing his wisdom,” the reverend said. “He’s still doing that. We love him so much.”
2013: Dennis Cavanagh
2012: Ed Romaine
2011: George Woodson
2010: Robert Brown
2009: Barbara Grattan
2008: Liz Stokes
2007: Michael Reichel
2006: Gary Pendzick
2005: The Riverhead Ambulance Corps
2004: Richard Wines
2003: Ken Testa
2002: “KeySpan Coalition”
2001: Ed Densieski
2000: Judge Richard Ehlers
1999: Barbara Blass
1998: Vicki Staciwo
1997: Lenard Makowski
1996: Buildings & Grounds
1995: Jack Hansen
1994: Jim Stark
1993: Rick Hanley
1992: Lawyer Jackson
1991: Andrea Lohneiss
1990: Monique Gablenz
1989: George Bartunek
1998: Patricia Tormey