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  • Manny Crisostomo /

    Students and friends of custodian Roy McKnight pay their respects at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in midtown.

  • McKnight served the parish elementary school from 1995 until his sudden death Nov. 30.

  • Manny Crisostomo /

    Frances Swanson comforts her 5-year-old daughter, Celia, during Friday's services for Roy McKnight. The St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School custodian, who died suddenly Nov. 30, had many friends among students and staff.

  • Manny Crisostomo /

    Drumbeats welcome mourners who lined up to attend the memorial.

Beloved custodian of St. Francis of Assisi school dies of heart attack

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 - 9:34 am

Most every weekday morning, while Sacramento's midtown streets were dark and still, Roy McKnight pedaled his bicycle to the school where for 18 years he tended to cracked windows and leaky faucets and boys and girls who counted him as a friend.

On the morning of Nov. 30 he was in his usual place, guiding students into St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School's old building, delivering cheery hellos and hugs and fist bumps. But beneath his slicker and boots, as the rain lashed down, McKnight was feeling poorly.

So after the pupils got settled, he went up to the school's third floor and rested on a cot. After a while, a staff member drove him home.

About an hour later McKnight, who since 1995 had greeted, teased, advised, protected and cleaned up after kids at the unpretentious Catholic school on K Street, was gone. His sudden death from a heart attack sent the school into a deep and collective mourning.

"Everyone knew and loved Roy," said Principal Cheryl Ramirez. "He was our custodian, but he was so much more than that. In many ways, Roy was the heart and soul of our school."

Rarely missing a day of work, McKnight was game for any physical task, regardless of how difficult or messy, said Ramirez and others. But his commitment extended beyond his job duties. He bonded with almost every member of the school's tightly knit community of teachers, aides, parents and students.

That connection was on full display Friday afternoon at a memorial service at St. Francis Catholic Church, where hundreds of people whose lives McKnight touched packed the pews and lined the walls.

To the soft thumping of African drums, young boys with solemn faces dressed in dark pants and white shirts walked alongside McKnight's casket as pallbearers rolled it slowly down the aisle. Girls in plaid uniforms sang a hymn, dabbing their eyes with tissues.

McKnight's daughter Cavisha called her dad her hero, small of stature but with the character of a giant. Others spoke of someone with a deep sense of justice and compassion, an educated man who could have been a professor but wanted a simpler life.

Ramirez, and the two principals who served at St. Francis before her, talked about McKnight's wisdom and graciousness, his determination to protect underdogs and tame bullies.

"Roy took care of all of us," said Laurie Power, who was principal for five years before Ramirez took over in 2011. "He was a custodian of all people."

Humble and soft-spoken, McKnight, 62, lived modestly with his longtime partner, Judith Calagno, in an apartment a short bike ride from the school. Years ago, he gave up his car and his dreadlocks. He wore traditional African garb at times, but usually came to school in blue jeans and a sweatshirt.

"He was a simple man. It didn't take much to please him," said his daughter. McKnight loved gardening, music, playing cards and cooking, and was famous for his spicy gumbo.

Born and raised in Southern California, McKnight earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history and African American studies, his daughter said. He valued knowledge for its own sake, family members said, and preferred a life uncomplicated by money and material possessions.

After migrating to Northern California in the early 1970s, McKnight was a cook on a merchant marine ship. For a time, he ran a laundromat in Sacramento, and worked at a church in Carmichael.

He was unemployed when his landlord, John Adamo, at the time a board member for St. Francis elementary, recommended him for an open custodial job in 1995.

At the apartment complex where he resided until his death, McKnight was never late with a rent check and "turned the common area into a very inviting spot," tending to plants and bushes without expectation of payment, Adamo said. He was a trusted confidant to all tenants.

On Adamo's recommendation, McKnight got the custodial job. It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Many days he arrived at school before 5 a.m. He unlocked the building, turned on the lights, cleared debris from around the school and "made sure everything was safe and ready for the children," said extension director Patti Sanchez. He cleaned bathrooms, emptied trash cans, plugged leaks, set up tables for bake sales and built decorations for holiday celebrations.

"He went about his work very quietly. He just got things done," said Ramirez.

As the sun came up and students began to arrive, McKnight stood outside and greeted each child by name before they scampered past Ramirez and into the building. He inquired about their families, zipped their jackets and told them to have a good day.

At lunch and recess, he supervised the playground, often joining in games of tag and tetherball. He was fun and mischievous in his role as hall monitor, but a stickler about rules against running in the hallways and talking too loudly.

More than once, he came home with bumps and bruises "from getting hit with a ball or running into a wall while he was playing with the kids," said Calagno.

Last Friday, McKnight insisted on going to work even though he felt dizzy and out of sorts, she said. It was raining, and he wanted to clear the gutter in front of the school building so kids could avoid splashing through puddles.

After completing that task, "he was in his usual place, welcoming the students, smiling and laughing," Ramirez said.

A couple of hours later, after the principal learned of McKnight's death, she gathered the teachers and asked them to bring the children to the church. Kids, teachers and staffers wept openly as Father Ken Laverone told them that "Roy was chosen by God to go to heaven today."

After the announcement, staffers set up a table in front of the iron gate where McKnight greeted students. Soon it was overloaded with flowers, stuffed animals, cards and notes expressing love and goodbyes.

One student drew a crayon picture of McKnight and wrote a sentiment that seemed to resonate with everyone on the St. Francis campus.

"It's just not the same here without you," it said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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