After 40 years as a custodian in East Rockaway, Miguel Soto called it a career in July, but there is one item he may return to the high school to retrieve.
“It’s the broomstick they gave to me 40 years ago,” Soto said in his Spanish accent. “It’s in the school. I left it in there. I always kept it, and was thinking, when I retire, I’m gonna take it with me.”
Soto, 65, was born and raised in Argentina, but has lived in East Rockaway for the past 45 years. He began working as a custodian at Centre Avenue School on June 1, 1978, and remained there for 38 years before moving to East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School for two years. He retired on July 25, and the Board of Education honored him at its Sept. 27 meeting.
Soto’s impact on the district went beyond his work as a custodian. He volunteered for 20 minutes a day as a reading partner for students who were not fluent in English, and translated conversations between teachers and parents who didn’t have a grasp on the language. He worked a 3-to-11:30 p.m. shift, but he frequently came in early to read with students.
“I did it because I wanted to get involved with the kids,” he said with a smile. “I want to help these kids. I really enjoyed that.” He also served as something of a guardian on school grounds, helping anyone who had a problem.
Soto was born in Buenos Aires on March 9, 1953. When he was a boy, the country mandated that citizens join the Argentine Army when they turn 18. He served his country for 18 months, driving a truck transporting soldiers. It was a dangerous time, he recalled, as anti-government revolutionaries were trying to overthrow the dictatorship in Argentina, and he worried about being captured while following his commander’s strict orders not to leave the truck.
When Soto was in his early 20s, he and his mother, Clara, moved to the United States and joined his father, Domingo, who was living in Long Beach, working at a pizza place and sending money back to them. Clara soon went back to Argentina to return to work at a telephone company, while Domingo and Miguel moved to East Rockaway. Miguel met his future wife, Rosa Saglimbeni, through a mutual friend, and later learned that they had been born in the same hospital, Maternidad Sardá in Buenos Aires, four years apart.
Miguel and Rosa, who is now 61, wed on Halloween in 1976, and had two children, Christian, now 40, a teacher at Centre Avenue, and Michael, 36, who teaches at Carey High School in Franklin Square. Both went through the East Rockaway school system, and attended Centre Avenue while their father worked there.
It was through Rosa that Miguel got his job in East Rockaway. He had previously worked as a dishwasher and landscaper, but Rosa worked as a custodian at Centre Avenue, along with her father and two uncles. Miguel was initially denied the job because school officials were concerned about too many family members working there, but Rosa stepped down to give her husband the position.
While there, Soto became something of a legend in East Rockaway. He often rode his bike to work from his nearby home. Many students also recall him displaying his soccer skills during recess, when he would kick the ball way up high, dazzling them.
“We would sit out there and wait for him to kick this ball,” Joe Kilgus, a former East Rockaway student, recalled. “He’d come out and he’d kick this ball what seemed like 100 feet in the air. We would stand there in awe.”
Soto said he always enjoyed soccer, and even coached his two sons. He added that his soccer days are over because he had a hip replacement. “That’s it,” he said. “No more kicking.” His skills clearly run in the family, however: Christian, who played for the East Rockaway High football team, set a county record as a sophomore by kicking a 57-yard field goal in a game against Carle Place.
Miguel said he had seen a lot of things in 40 years. He shared a story about a former principal ruining a freshly painted floor by insisting on walking to his office in his socks one night to retrieve something he’d forgotten. He remembered being disgusted by a former co-worker who would eat an onion as if it were an apple and wash it down with black coffee.
He also recalled a magician who came to perform at a father-son breakfast at Centre Avenue — and whom he warned not to use his smoke machine. “I say, ‘My friend, this is going to give you problems,’” Soto recounted. “It’s going to set off the alarm.” The magician assured him that it was going to be fine.
“He put the smoke — boom!” Miguel said, the frustration evident even years later. “Here comes the Fire Department, everybody out of the school. It was pouring outside.”
Tim Silk, who was the principal at Centre Avenue for 27 years until he retired in 2016, said that Soto had a bit of a temper, but was always there for the students. “The kids loved him most,” Silk said. “They would talk to him at lunchtime and he would always give a helping hand.”
Children are still a big part of Soto’s life in retirement. He said he enjoys spending time with his five grandchildren, and noted that he and his entire family were on a cruise in Bermuda on the day his retirement became official, but he was oblivious to the calendar. “[Christian] said, ‘Do you know what day it is?’” Soto recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s a beautiful day.’ He said, ‘Today’s your official retirement day.’ So I said, ‘OK, go to the bar and get me a piña colada.’”