At J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Philando Castile and co-worker Vanessa Smith served meals to more than 400 kids twice a day, he was remembered for his patience and friendly demeanor.
“He smiled at everybody who came in the building,” said Joan Edman, a paraprofessional at J.J. Hill for seven years. “I remember him saying, ‘I just want everybody here to be happy.’ He wanted the cafeteria to be a happy place. It was a huge goal, and not an easy one, and he did it.”
A Facebook page for the school’s PTO was lit up with praises.
There was one from a mom who recalled how he’d make time to listen when she’d call him about her child’s food allergy. Another from a school social worker who said he’d have food and a smile for every child in the morning — no matter what time they walked in the door. And another from a teacher thankful that school was out and she wouldn’t have to explain what’d happened to her students.
Kathy Holmquist-Burks, who recently retired as J.J. Hill’s principal, recalled in an interview how she’d made the decision to hire Castile three years ago — the coming school year would have been his fourth at the school — and never regretted it.
“He was a great guy, and a humble and loving person,” she said, her voice breaking. “I just don’t understand how this could happen.”
In a statement from St. Paul Public Schools, a co-worker said: “Kids loved him. He was smart, overqualified. He was quiet, respectful, and kind. I knew him as warm and funny; he called me his ‘wing man.’ He wore a shirt and tie to his supervisor interview and said his goal was to one day ‘sit on the other side of this table.’ ”
Edman said that Castile would fist-bump kids, make sure they didn’t have food they shouldn’t have and pushed the healthy stuff, too.
“You’re still hungry?” she recalled him saying to them. “Well, you didn’t take any of the vegetables.”
On her Facebook page, Edman posted a school yearbook photo of Castile and Smith.
“Doesn’t he look like a sweet, gentle guy?” she said. “That’s Phil.”
He worked not far from Central High, where he graduated in 2001, and had been employed by the district’s nutrition services department since 2002, joining when he was 19. He was promoted to the position of nutrition services supervisor in August 2014.
“I am deeply sorry for his family and for their loss,” St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva said in a statement. “He’s worked in SPPS for many years and he graduated from our district, so he was one of our own.”
She was said to be distraught over the news.
Sami Gabriel, president of Teamsters Local 320, of which Castile was a member, said: “I have known Philando ‘Phil’ Castile since he joined the Teamsters back in 2002 and he was an amazing person who did his job at St. Paul Public Schools because he loved the children he served.”
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, noted that with school out for the summer that it could be difficult for the kids he mentored to get the emotional support and counseling they may need.
“So it falls to us — the adults — to be there for the children,” she said in a statement. “As heartbreaking as this death is for us, it will be worse for the kids who just lost their lunchroom friend, Philando Castile.”
Sally Rafowicz, a parent at J.J. Hill, faced the challenge Thursday of having to tell her 9-year-old daughter that the man the girl knew as “Mr. Phil” had been shot and killed by police.
“But why?” the mother recalled her daughter as saying.
To the Rafowicz family, and to the J.J. Hill community, Castile was a “kind, gentle soul,” Sally Rafowicz said, “kind of like Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.”
A vigil will be held in Castile’s honor Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at J.J. Hill, 998 Selby Av.