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Pat Dunlap, center, with sister Mary and younger brother Jay, who is now president of Madonna School, which serves students with special needs.

People don’t work 40 years at one place anymore, do they? Well, not many. Anyway, Pat Dunlap has — but he is special.

He grew up with special education, swam in Special Olympics and has lived with special needs. Folks at St. Pius-St. Leo Elementary School, 6905 Blondo St., say Pat also holds a special place in their hearts.

“He’s full of life,” said Principal Joyce Gubbels, “and very interested in people.”

“He’s an icon,” said Mary Jalbert, who runs the kitchen and lunchroom where the 57-year-old works. “He has never come to work unhappy, and kids love him. They return years later as adults and say, ‘Pat is still here?’ ”

For now, Pat is standing pat and staying put, not leaving the place where he began work in 1975 as a teenager.

“I clean tables, take out the trash and wash pots and pans,” he cheerfully told me after he was honored last week for his milestone anniversary. Then he waved to departing teachers, smiling as he repeatedly called out, “Have a nice summer!”

He and brother Jay Dunlap, 53, long have enjoyed a special connection, now even more so. Five years ago, Jay became president of Madonna School, which serves students with special needs.

In their childhood, Jay recalls, Pat was shy and withdrawn. He kept to himself and liked to swing in the backyard.

Jay would chase him, just to get a rise out of him. As they grew older, Jay would read to him, and Pat would ask questions. Eventually, he got over his shyness.

“Now he’s very outgoing,” Jay said. “He loves to have a conversation with anybody.”

Jay graduated in 1980 from Creighton Prep and then earned degrees from Notre Dame and Northwestern. He became a TV news anchor in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. He married and started a family, naming his first child Patrick, after his brother.

Meanwhile, the older Pat faithfully tended to tables, trash, utensils and more. As the third-oldest of 12 children in his family, he especially loved his siblings’ weddings.

He himself never married, but when his parents, Dr. Jim and Joan Dunlap, threw him a special 40th birthday party, Pat donned a tuxedo.

Recalled Jay: “That was his shining moment.”

Living away from Omaha, Jay eventually wearied of his TV jobs’ “daily grind of fires and murders,” and he became communications director for the Legion of Christ. In 2010, he took the top post at Madonna, 6402 N. 71st Plaza.

His relationship with Pat, he said, has helped him to see potential in students. In his youth, Pat was termed “retarded,” a commonly used word back then, but Jay said he probably would be described today as “on the autism spectrum.”

“Pat has some limitations, but also remarkable abilities,” Jay said. “You could mention pretty much any date in any year, and he can pull up what day of the week it was.”

He is most interested in “family, home and church.”

Pat lives in a basement apartment at the home of a sister, Suzanne Carl, and her husband, Doug. To and from his job, Pat walks the three-quarters of a mile each direction. He also walks the family’s three dogs — separately.

Pat’s presence in the Dunlap clan, Suzanne said, long has served as a kind of litmus test for those who would marry into the family. None of the siblings, she said, wed anyone who didn’t also embrace Pat.

It’s not difficult to love him, she said. “He’s a holy soul.”

Pat has positively affected the next generation, too. The Carls’ son, James, 14, daily gives his uncle a shave and has developed a good understanding of people with special needs.

Monica Thiel, Pat’s younger sister by eight years, recalled her first date 30 years ago with her husband, Joe, a graduate of St. Pius.

“Mr. Dunlap is your brother?” Joe said. “That’s so cool.”

Pat and Joe remain close friends, and the entire family considers Pat a blessing.

“His soul is pure,” Monica said. “Can you imagine having a saint in the family? Our family has been so blessed and protected spiritually by this man.”

Pat, whose early development may have been impaired because of encephalitis as a baby, received special education in the Westside Community Schools. Jay said those who don’t thrive in public schools often turn to Madonna.

Leading the school is a mid-career calling, inspired by a number of kind and special people, including Pat.

Especially Pat.

Said Jay: “He is about the sweetest, most loving person you’d ever want to meet.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

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