Jackson Lumma, 6, a first grader at Newtown Elementary in Bucks County, returned after the winter holidays and told Suzanne Antonelli, his instructional support teacher, that he was afraid to use the school bathroom because monsters were in it.
"Our whole first-grade teaching team tried to tell him there were no monsters," Antonelli said recently. "He wasn't believing us. I thought, 'Who should I go to?' And I immediately thought of the guy I knew since this school opened in 1995. I said, 'Get Ted Qualli.' "
Qualli, 66, is the school janitor, but more than that, as principal Kevin King explained, "He is the glue that holds this school together.
"We have 770 students and 100 staff in an 85,000-square-foot building," King said, "and Ted Qualli is the maintenance czar, the safety czar, the energy czar, the electrical, plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning czar – and everything he does here is from the heart."
Now, Qualli is a Top 10 finalist in the national Janitor of the Year contest run by Cintas, the building maintenance supply company. First prize is $5,000 for the janitor and $5,000 for a school makeover. Online voting is open through April 14 at www.cintas.com/JOTY.
When told about the bathroom's monster problem, Qualli hurried to Nancy Adams' first-grade classroom. Kneeling so he was eye-to-eye with Jackson Lumma, he explained that he has opened the school every morning since it began, turning on the lights in every room including all the bathrooms — and never, not once, did he find a monster.
Then he took the boy to every restroom in Newtown Elementary and showed him they were all monster-free. Jackson has used the restrooms ever since.
"Ted Qualli has a magic touch with kids," Antonelli said.
Qualli cannot enter a classroom these days without students spontaneously breaking into a "Qual-li! Qual-li!" chant. A "Vote for Qualli" bulletin board in the hall outside Melissa Lynch's first-grade classroom is covered with children's messages including, "He has a kind heart," "You make me happy. Love, Payton," and "Thank you for watering the plants."
Plants are a big part of Qualli's constituent services. He starts cucumber, tomato, and zucchini seeds at home in eight-ounce containers, then gives one to every Newtown Elementary student each spring, along with growing instructions.
This year, delighted to discover that third grader Cassidy Pianka, 8, has a green thumb, Qualli teamed up with him to start veggie seedlings for Cassidy's classmates and teachers.
Cassidy seemed disappointed that the seeds he had planted in 36 containers on a sunny windowsill hadn't sprouted yet. "I grew nine tulips in my yard," he told Qualli, "and I once kept an African blue basil alive for nine months." Qualli nodded knowingly. "These will pop up," he assured Cassidy. "Any day now."
Qualli was raised in Churchville, seven miles from Newtown, where he and his father grew potatoes and vegetables for the family of nine.
"Dad made me turn over our half-acre with a shovel," he said. "After a year, I got smart, saved my money, and bought a rototiller."
Qualli started out as a school janitor in 1967, left the Council Rock School District in 1974 to spend 10 years as a machinist, then returned in '84 for good.
He retrieves lost balls from the school roof, jump-starts teachers' stalled cars, calms anxious kids by handing them a screwdriver and explaining how to tighten loose screws on classroom chairs ("Righty tighty, lefty loosey"), and fixes broken wheelchairs and adaptive bicycles for children with disabilities in the life-skills class.
"I'm always jumping to do whatever I got to do," he said happily. "That's what keeps me hopping."
Qualli had no idea that Newtown Elementary parents had written letters to Cintas, nominating him for Janitor of the Year.
When King found out in mid-March that Qualli was a finalist, he secretly arranged for an all-school celebration in the multipurpose room, telling Qualli it was going to be an assembly honoring a student who did well in a National Geographic Bee.
The unsuspecting Qualli walked in, and saw 870 students, parents, and staff, along with his wife, Marie; grown children Ted, Dawn, and Tim; and grandchildren Anna, 5, Madeleine, 3, and Grace, 2. He hugged his family.
"I was so overwhelmed," Qualli said. "I started losing it." Remembering the moment, he struggled to speak, his eyes suddenly moist.
"I get a little emotional sometimes," he said, placing his hand on his chest. "Everything I do is from the heart."