J.R. Del Alto: A man, a maintenance leader, a school hero

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by Leeza Arbatman & Michelle Deng

Many dream of being a hero—the one with superhuman strength and speed, the one who stops the bad guys, the one who saves the day. In less than a minute, Upper School Maintenance Director J. R. Del Alto learned how it feels to do just that.

For many here, April 22 had seemed like a delightful day, for it was the day of the much-anticipated spring rally.

While faculty and students alike were cheering on Davis Field, Del Alto was meeting with the state inspector about the elevators. The discussion took longer than he had originally expected, so he missed most of the lunch period. He decided he would have to grab some food across the street.

As he walked along the back parking lot on his way to buy lunch across the road, he noticed two teenage boys slinking off-campus, one in front carrying a backpack and hiding his face with his shirt, and the other hurrying along behind him with two backpacks.

Those boys were not students here. Those boys were thieves.

Heart racing, Del Alto headed after them.

“Stop! I see you!” he said.

But they picked up speed into a run, straight for the wooden fence. Shooting into a sprint, Del Alto chased furiously; as the boys leaped over the fence to the apartment lot, he followed right at their heels, hardly registering his jump.

“Drop the stuff!” he yelled at them.

Finally, with hardly a pause, the boys dropped the backpacks on the ground near the fence and ran off. Feeling that one “old man,” as he referred to himself, probably had no chance catching two young kids, Del Alto stopped his chase and called Assistant Head of School Greg Lawson and the San Jose police.

Del Alto’s jump was not successful by chance: about eight years ago, he attended a reserve police academy, where fence-jumping was part of his training.

“Some of that training you never forget. I remember how to jump fences,” he said.

In no more than forty-five seconds, Del Alto had chased after thieves, leapt over a fence over a head taller than him, and saved three backpacks worth of laptops and other valuables. All in a day’s work.

Del Alto has actually seen many days’ work at this school. He first came here as an 18-year-old high-school student back in 1982. At that time, the institution was still a one-campus Academy without a high school; a closet of old military gear lingered as remnants of the academy days. He would work in the evenings and take college courses during the daytime.

“I liked it so much. The atmosphere was great and the people were great, so I thought it was a good fit,” said Del Alto. “It just happened that I liked it so much that I stayed.”

Over these last 29 years, he has grown with the school.

“It’s been interesting, to say the least, to watch it grow from this little hub to this great school that it is now. You get an appreciation of life.”

He said that comparing the school community of today to what it was so long ago really makes the years sink in.

When alumni he once knew as elementary-age girls and boys come back to visit as adults, Del Alto said he thinks, “Oh my god—they’re men and women now! […] Holy cow, I’m getting old.” With a laugh, he said, “I won’t walk with my head down because people will see my bald spot.”

Through these years, Del Alto has also given much to the school. According to him, his job encompasses “everything—everything from plumbing to electricity to carpentry to the pool.”

Indeed, a certified pool operator, in the mornings he spends one to two hours verifying that the chemicals and other conditions in the pool are safe. He installs and fixes electricity, repairs and remodels school buildings, and helps clean up messes. When he completes his personal duties, he then assists his colleagues with theirs.

“Every day is different. That’s why I like it,” he said.

As different as his day-to-day activities are, he occasionally has even more unusual experiences—such as stopping crime. He has been the one to stop the bad guy more than once, not just last April.

Once, a few years ago, thieves were regularly breaking into Dobbins and stealing laptops after school. One afternoon, he noticed a pair of sketchy-looking adolescents peeking through the fence and walked around to investigate. As he approached, the boys darted off into their apartment; Del Alto noted their apartment number and alerted the police, who caught the thieves.

Another time 12 years ago, a man fleeing from cops on the highway sprinted onto campus. Originally, Del Alto said, he had planned to stay away from criminal. However, when he saw the man run over to the Montessori preschool, he could not just stand by.

“I thought, ‘That’s just not okay,’” he said. “I chased him, and I took him down and held him down [as] I waited for the cops to come.”

While demonstrating the climb, he said with a smile, “Don’t try this at home, kids.”