A few months after graduating from St. Paul’s Central High School, where he excelled in the classroom and rarely got in trouble, Philando Castile landed a job with the St. Paul School District.
He moved unassumingly through life, friends say, but in his 14 years serving lunches, most recently at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, he still found time to give high-fives to students or offer an encouraging word to African-American youths, in whom he recognized something of himself.
Childhood friend Greg Crockett recalled a time when he and Castile ran into an adoring former student at a house party, who gushed that Castile’s advice had stuck with her over the years. “Phil was a smart dude and he was a progressive thinker; he asked questions and he was chill,” Crockett recalled, his voice cracking. “He didn’t get in no trouble. You never heard about Phil beefing with nobody.”
His calm nature contrasted with his violent death, which was streamed onto Facebook, viewed nearly 4 million times and shared by hundreds of thousands of people. The St. Anthony officer who fatally shot him was identified late Thursday as Jeronimo Yanez.
Castile’s cousin Nasiy Mitsva, who attended rallies Wednesday night in Falcon Heights and outside the governor’s residence in St. Paul, asked what version of events would have surfaced if Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, hadn’t recorded the shooting’s aftermath. “A lot of us are looking for answers,” Mitsva said.
Castile’s warmth and generosity extended to everyone around him, friends said. He adopted his girlfriend’s young daughter as his own.
Once, about the time they started hanging out while attending Webster Elementary School, Crockett and Castile agreed to meet at Crockett’s cousin’s house to play the popular martial-arts video game Mortal Kombat. Unknown to them, Castile had memorized all of the game’s “cheat codes,” to ensure that he won. Later, when the gameplay moved online, he adopted his nickname, Chedda Phil, as his gamertag.
“Phil ain’t gonna be the one to jump out in your face and be loud; he’s gonna be the one to chill out and be cool,” said Crockett, 33.
He hasn’t been able to bring himself to watch the video.
Castile was remembered at the St. Paul school for his patience and friendly demeanor. The day after his death, more than 4,000 people took to the streets to mourn him.
“He smiled at everybody who came in the building,” said Joan Edman, a paraprofessional at J.J. Hill for seven years. “I remember him saying, ‘I just want everybody here to be happy.’ He wanted the cafeteria to be a happy place. It was a huge goal, and not an easy one, and he did it.”
A Facebook page for the school’s PTO was filled with praise for Castile. One mother recalled how he would make time to listen when she’d call about her child’s food allergy. A school social worker said Castile had food and a smile for every child in the morning — no matter what time they walked in. A teacher was thankful that school was out and she wouldn’t have to explain to her students what had happened.
Kathy Holmquist-Burks, who recently retired as J.J. Hill’s principal, recalled in an interview how she’d made the decision to hire Castile three years ago — the coming school year would have been his fourth at the school — and never regretted it. “He was a great guy, and a humble and loving person,” she said, her voice breaking. “I just don’t understand how this could happen.”
He worked not far from Central High, where he graduated in 2001, and had been employed by the district’s nutrition services department since 2002, joining when he was 19. He was promoted to the position of nutrition services supervisor in August 2014.
“I am deeply sorry for his family and for their loss,” St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva said in a statement. “He’s worked in SPPS for many years and he graduated from our district, so he was one of our own.”
To the J.J. Hill community, Castile was a “kind, gentle soul — kind of like Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,” said Sally Rafowicz, a parent at J.J. Hill.
She faced the challenge of having to tell her 9-year-old daughter that the man the girl knew as “Mr. Phil” had been shot and killed by police.
“But why?” the girl asked.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109