To many Americans, Philando Castile will forever be known as yet another hashtag; yet another black man shot by a police officer this year. For the children and families of J.J. Hill Montessori school in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was a role model.
In the disturbing video captured by Castile's partner Diamond Reynolds in the moments after he was shot, she proclaimed, "He’s a good man. He works for St. Paul Public Schools."
Based on the outpouring of support from families whose children saw Castile every day, his impact was clearly overwhelmingly positive. It only makes sense — Castile spent much of his life in the school district, first as a student and then as an employee.
Before enrolling at the University of Minnesota, Castile graduated from Central High School in 2001, according to his Facebook page. Since 2002, he had worked in nutrition services at Arlington High School (now called Washington Technology Magnet), Chelsea Heights Elementary, and J.J. Hill Montessori.
Almost exactly two years ago, Castile was promoted from nutrition services assistant to supervisor, according to a statement from St. Paul Public Schools. As superintendent Valeria Silva said, "He was one of our own."
Brian Aldes of the Teamsters Local 320, of which Castile was a 14-year member, described Castile as "an amazing person who did his job at St. Paul Public Schools because he loved the children he served."
"Kids loved him," another colleague said about Castile in the statement. "He was smart, over-qualified. 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.’"
At his latest school, Castile oversaw the cafeteria frequented by 530 students and 85 staff. J.J. Hill Montessori’s recently retired principal Katherine Holmquist-Burks hired Castile, and described him as "a warm person and a gentle spirit" to the Associated Press.
Another former colleague, Joan Edman, told Time that Castile remembered the names of every kid at school and even remembered which students had particular dietary limitations.
"He made a real contribution," Edman said at a rally where multiple parents and colleagues attended. She added, "I’ve never seen anybody take that kind of role so seriously."
Edman even attributed the calmer cafeteria that year to Castile's presence, and said he often taught children about being respectful to each other.
John Thomas, a friend of Castile’s who also worked in the school district’s facilities department, described him as a "nerd" who was passionate about his job, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.
"That is what [that police officer] just took from the students of St. Paul — a positive role model," Thompson said.
A parent at the gathering on Thursday held up a sign that read, "Philando Castile fed my sons lunch. Cops fed him four bullets."
Keelan Bailey, who attended the protest, recalled a period when his son was too nervous to walk through the lunch line alone. That’s when Castile held the boy’s hand and relayed words of encouragement every day until he could stand on his own.
"I watched the video. … I couldn’t … stop crying," Bailey said to the Pioneer Press. "How could that happen to that sweet [expletive] man?"
Andrea Ledger, the parent of a kindergartner at the school, posted a note on Facebook about Castile’s friendly nature, according to Cafe Mom writer and Twin Cities–area resident Wendy Robinson.
"My daughter knew him," Ledger wrote. "Saw him twice a day, every day, at school where he greeted her with jokes and smiles. We've talked generally about Black Lives Matter, but I haven't told [my daughter] about Mr. Castile. I'm going to need to get myself together first."
Rebecca Murray, another local parent, said Castile was loved by her children, who attended the school, according to Robinson.
"He knew every single one by name, pushed extra food in them like a grandma, and sneaked extra graham crackers into my son's bag because [my son] got a kick out of it," she wrote.
Ledger, Bailey, and hundreds of other parents will have the task of telling their children that their favorite cafeteria worker, who handed out high-fives and advice on making sure to eat all of their vegetables, won’t be at school this fall. For now, the district said it will provide grief counseling for anyone who needs it.