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Unlike most people, who dash through elementary school in six or seven years, Anthony Cardamone, Sr. has spent the last twenty-two years in school. On July 29, though, Cardamone will be leaving Betsy Ross after more than two decades as a custodian there.

On a typical day, Cardamone starts work at 7 or 7:30 am. He cleans all the rooms at Betsy Ross, one for each grade, K through five; assists with the breakfast and lunch programs for 150 students; and stays another hour after school to put the classrooms and bathrooms in order. This work is generally straightforward, but one he does gladly for the children.

Things aren’t always quiet, though, as Cardamone recalls”the most unusual thing he has had to work with recently happened four or five years ago, when a teacher found a small fire in the trashcan of the boys’ bathroom, upstairs. The teacher quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out.

No stranger to fire

Back when Cardamone was in elementary school on Chicago’s West Side, extinguishers were little help against the infamous 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School.”I remember it was the Monday of Thanksgiving break, and it was about fifteen minutes before the bell,” Cardamone said. “About a quarter to 3 p.m., there were some kids who were supposed to carry the garbage down to the boiler room, but when they went out in the hallway, the hallway was already full of black smoke.”

At that time, the school fire alarms rang only in the building, so there was a delay between the time the school alarm bells rang and the fire station could respond. As a result, ninety-two children and three nuns died, and the school was destroyed.

“Our nun was one of the ones that died,” he said. “The fire alarm was only in the building, so the nun says go to the window. She opened the door and went out in the hallway; she was probably looking for a way to get us out. I jumped out of a second-story window.”

After the fire, the school wasn’t usable; the roof and one section collapsed, and the students from Our Lady of Angels were divided between three public schools in the area. These schools each had three floors, only two of which were used, so the schools allowed the kids from Our Lady of Angels to use the third floor of each school. The children still received a Catholic education, but the public schools insisted that the Catholics on the third floor adhere to public school rules, so Cardamone and the other kids had recess for the first time.

Following high school, Cardamone went to barber college at eighteen. He then served two years in the army before starting work in his uncle Tom’s barber shop. It was around this time he met his wife, Kathy, on a blind date set up by his uncle.

“I said I want a nice lady to marry and he said here you are,” Cardamone said. He and Kathy celebrated their 35th anniversary on June 7.

Retooling

In 1976, Cardamone left the barber business.

“It wasn’t working out,” Cardamone said, despite the “long-haired hippies” back then.

He tried factory jobs for a while, until 1982, when he found work at Field Stevenson, another Forest Park school.

After a year he found his new home, coming to Betsy Ross in 1983.

“I’ve been here ever since,” he said. “I had a wonderful staff. In the twenty-two years I’ve been here, they couldn’t have been better. I’m going to miss them and they’re going to miss me. Betsy Ross has given me a wonderful life. I really have nothing negative to say about the place.”

In fact, he said, Betsy Ross hasn’t changed much in the years since he arrived. The school has simply become more diverse; but as far as he’s concerned, “kids are kids.”

According to Betsy Ross principal Bill Milnamow, kids loved Cardamone. “The kids loved him, parents loved him, staff loved him. I’ve worked with Tony for five years. He’s an excellent custodian; he’s definitely deserved a long and happy retirement. We wish him the best of luck.”

Time to leave

Three months ago Cardamone’s wife had a heart attack and the couple decided it was time to retire.

After she recovered, they took a plane down to Florida and bought a house.

“We both decided to enjoy the rest of our lives,” Cardamone said. “The only thing that’s keeping me here is I’ve got to sell my house.”

When asked about his work, Cardamone says he has been affected by the Our Lady of Angels fire.

“The same thing that happened when I was 12 could never happen here, [but] I always stay on the first or second floor. The teachers will tell you I always did my work well. And when I do catch kids playing with matches, I holler,” he said.