Mary Tripp is as close as you'll get to a definition of the expression "mile a minute."

The Chief Charlo Elementary custodian is one of 84 in the district (70 full- and part-time, 14 substitute), and she's beloved at Charlo. This is Tripp's 29th year working for Missoula County Public Schools and on the first day of school Monday, she zipped around Charlo as shy youngsters trudged single-file through the front doors.

She doesn't stop – except for the kids.

Teacher Shaleen Sullivan brought her first grade class to the lunchroom, explaining how recess and lunch work. Tripp leaned against the kitchen counter, becoming calm as she watched the kids.

"This is the best part of my job, being around all these kids," she said.

"Everyone is like a big family up here. It's the best thing."

A chorus of tiny voices said "Hi, Miss Mary" on their way out ("Mrs. Tripp" is too formal, she said). Tripp doled out high-fives.

"I probably have more friends than anyone in the world," she said. "They see you in the grocery store, and they come up and say hi and give you hugs."

***

Tripp "is why our school looks so good," said Charlo principal Vinnie Giammona.

In just the first hour of school on Monday, she had rearranged the cafeteria to transition from breakfast to lunch, cleaned up the before-school activities outside, taken out the garbage and was on her way to clean bathrooms. And throughout all of this, coworkers were peppering her with questions – and a request for medicine. The headaches have already begun.

She's rarely in her office, except to check email and see if teachers need anything.

Tripp was born in Missoula and never left. She started with MCPS in 1987 at Mount Jumbo School. Her kids went there, and she started out as a crossing guard. Within a couple of weeks, she was in the kitchen.

She worked there until 1999, when she moved to custodial at Rattlesnake Middle School. That school turned into an elementary, and Tripp headed to Charlo in 2004.

"I've been here ever since," she said. "This has been a very, very, very good part of my life."

Band teacher Tim Aston scurried into the lunchroom: "Can I steal this lovely, talented lady away from you?" he said before launching into questions about how to set up the room for the band students this week.

"Today is kind of crazy, because nothing is the same," she said, cleaning up outside the school and lugging tables back inside that, stood on end, were taller than she was.

***

Giammona said Tripp is humble – fitting, because she hated being the center of attention on Monday.

"She's the hardest-working, most amazing member of our school," he said. "And she makes a point to get to know the kids."

Tripp loves her job, but refuses to take all the credit.

"It takes us all to be good," she said.

Last week, Tripp joined other staff working overtime to get Rattlesnake Elementary in order for the first day. It's still under construction, and there was a lot of work to be done to get it kid-ready.

"We were washing lockers and there was Mark Thane, Dave Rott, Burley McWilliams, Joe Potter, Pat McHugh ... all from the top of the district, and all on their hands and knees scrubbing, moving furniture, wiping things down," Tripp said. "That's what it's all about. Working side-by-side with you, that's how it should be. It's a big family.

"It's the best place to be."

In fact, it's the "last best place" for Tripp. She'll likely stay at Charlo until she retires.

Tripp and Charlo secretary Connie Doherty took a brief trip back in time before Tripp shot off to her next task. Doherty was working at Mount Jumbo when Tripp came on board nearly three decades ago.

"It's funny, we started at Jumbo together and we'll probably end here together. We made a full circle," Tripp said, wiping some dust from Doherty's computer.

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Reporter for the Missoulian