The first truck pulled up to Wharton High in 1997, and head custodian Tirso “Junior” Cintron was waiting.
He pulled the first chair off the truck. The first desk.
“The first everything,” says Carmen Aguero, one of the first teachers at the school.
Junior set the desks and chairs up in the classrooms and offices. He made sure the bathrooms had toilet paper and soap. The lawn was mowed. The floors were shined.
Wharton was ready.
And every day, for the next 22 years, before any teachers and students arrived for the day, thanks to the diligence, determination and dedication of Junior, you could count on one thing.
Wharton High was ready.
* * *
Junior’s last day at Wharton was August 26. To say he will be missed hardly does his legacy justice.
“I’m telling you, and this is no exaggeration, he is the most beloved person ever to walk the halls of Wharton High,” says Tommy Tonelli, a guidance counselor and the school’s long-time, beloved boys basketball coach. “He has done more for Wharton in the history of our school than any other person that has ever worked here.”
That’s high praise from Tonelli, who isn’t prone to hyperbole. He was one of hundreds of friends that Junior made at Wharton over the years. Junior’s retirement party on Sept. 12, Tonelli says, will be the most attended retirement party ever at New Tampa’s oldest high school.
A school custodian can be a thankless job, and rarely does one rise to the level of hallway celebrity, but Junior somehow did just that.
He was always affable, earnest, positive, productive and those who knew him say he never had a bad day.
He arrived every morning at 5 a.m., checked the air conditioning, swung by the kitchen to make sure the cooks had gas, went building to building turning off all 16 alarms, and made a sweep of the school to make sure everything was safe and ready for another day.
During the day, he answered calls on his radio for assistance, never saying no, never sighing, never hanging his head. When the school served as a hurricane shelter, it was Junior who made sure everyone was as comfortable as possible.
Even the dreaded call to clean up after a sick student — the one task he liked least — was hastily handled.
“I am an easy person,” Junior says. “I always had a good attitude, that’s why I win so many people. If a teacher saw me in the hall and said she needed a new board in her room, when she showed up the next morning, the board was there.”
Junior, 67, was born in Puerto Rico and moved to The Bronx, NY, when he was 18. He worked as a waiter in a hotel for 17 years, met and married Rosa, his wife of 42 years, and started a family — daughters Elaine and Jennifer, who are now teachers in Hillsborough County, and son David, who is a U.S. Marine.
In 1989, the Cintrons moved to Tampa, where Junior started work at Hillsborough High from 2:30 p.m.-11 p.m., while holding a second full-time time cleaning floors at Tampa General from 11:30 p.m.-8 a.m.
Those at Wharton can thank Aguero for Junior. The two met when Junior was the head custodian at Hillsborough.
When she was promoted to the athletic director at Wharton, and the new school was looking for a custodian, she had one word for principal Mitch Muley: Junior.
Aguero lured him to Wharton, where Junior soon became indispensable.
“He was the heart and soul of Wharton,” she says.
Aguero chuckles recalling the time Junior helped chase away the biggest squirrel either of them had ever seen, and the time he had to remove a dead alligator from the tennis courts.
When Aguero left Wharton to become principal at Webb Middle School, she had her head custodian sit down with Junior, “to teach him how to do the job right.”
Junior had his own way of dealing with problems. When parents complained that their kids said there were no soap dispensers in some of the bathrooms, Junior explained that the school couldn’t replace the ones student were destroying fast enough.
When the parents showed up to discuss the issue a second time, he was ready with a pile of smashed and broken soap dispenser. “After that, they never call me again,” Junior says.
When some kids made fun of him for being a custodian, he pretended not to understand or would just ignore them. Those that didn’t, he would fist bump or salute.
“I was like that with them all time; they would say ‘he’s cool,” Junior says, smiling proudly. “They like me because I’m cool.”
Junior loved joking with students and teachers, and wasn’t above the occasional prank. One of his favorite victims was Tonelli.
Despite the basketball coach’s fear of frogs and snakes, that didn’t stop Junior one time from putting a frog in a bag of donuts he left for Tonelli. Junior waited in an adjoining room with some other teachers, all eagerly waiting to hear the reaction. Junior leans forward as he tells the story, slapping his knee.
And yes, Tonelli was still Junior’s biggest fan.
“They should rename the school after him,” Tonelli says. “That’s how much he has meant to Wharton High School.”
On Junior’s last day at Wharton, he was summoned to the auditorium where the school’s teachers were waiting for him. He received a standing ovation, two sweaters for the winter — he hates the cold — and lunch.
He got a second lunch later when the ladies who work in the cafeteria made him his favorite — pork, rice and black beans.
“Two big lunches,” Junior says, grinning ear to ear.
However, even the happiest guy in world couldn’t escape the sadness on that last day. At 2:30 p.m., he took his radio and told everyone it was time for his final call. He thanked current principal Mike Rowan and all the teachers, and it was as if the entire school wept along with Junior.
Then, he walked out the front door, turned around, and gave the school he had served for 22 years one last glance.
“I looked at everything, and I say, ‘Okay. That’s it.’”