Deafening roars of "Qualli! Qualli!" greeted Newtown Elementary's beloved jack-of-all-trades, Ted Qualli, as he walked into the Bucks County school's auditorium on Monday afternoon and learned that he had won Cintas Corp.'s national Janitor of the Year contest.
Eight hundred students and teachers screaming his name, waving placards with a photo of his grinning face, overwhelmed the 66-year-old Qualli, who has worked at the school since it opened in 1995.
"Ted, you got more votes than anybody in the country," principal Kevin King said. "You kicked butt!"
Qualli, described by King as "the glue that holds this school together," received 379,300 out of the 898,200 online votes cast. He beat out nine other finalists to win the $5,000 cash prize for himself and $5,000 in products and services from the business supply company Cintas and Rubbermaid Commercial Products.
"I can't believe this is happening," said Qualli, who was profiled here after his nomination in March.
On Monday, he was fighting a losing battle against tears. He wiped his eyes on his blue T-shirt sleeve, and recovered just enough voice to tell his school full of fans, "And I just want to say thank you."
King said Qualli would use the money to buy a wheelchair for his sister-in-law and go on a Cape May vacation with his wife, Marie. "You heard me say it, Marie," King exclaimed, "without the kids!"
Seated on stage in what the principal described as the "King of the World Chair," Qualli heard the Newtown Township commissioners declare May 1, 2017, as Ted Qualli Day.
Besides keeping the school clear and safe, he retrieves lost balls from the 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.
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.
King called him "the safety czar, the energy czar, the electrical, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning czar – and everything he does here is from the heart."
Ever since Qualli was announced as a finalist, he couldn't enter a classroom without students spontaneously chanting "Qual-li! Qual-li!" A "Vote for Qualli" bulletin board in the hall outside Melissa Lynch's first-grade classroom was covered with children's messages: "He has a kind heart," "You make me happy. Love, Payton," and "Thank you for watering the plants."
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.
"I'm always jumping to do whatever I got to do," Qualli said happily. "That's what keeps me hopping."