At age 100, legendary R.I. doorman still working

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – He nurtured a young college student named Patrick Kennedy into elected office. He’s on a first-name basis with a president and met a pope. The Democrat even gets kisses from the Republican governor’s wife.

But on most days, 100-year-old Frank Di Paolo Jr. leaves his retirement complex in North Providence and drives himself three miles to the Statehouse where he’s paid $25 a day as a doorman to keep the uninvited off the House floor.

On Wednesday, lawmakers who have crossed Di Paolo’s path for 30 years on their way to careers both large and small threw him a party for his 100th birthday, which came on Christmas Eve.

“Now, they tell me, ‘What are you working for?” Di Paolo said in an interview this week. “I said, ‘My God, I don’t need the money.

“But what am I going to do at home? I need people.”

Di Paolo has been in politics longer than most Rhode Island leaders have been alive. He came from an era of rough-and-tumble ward fights.

He drove Democrat Al Smith around Providence during an unsuccessful presidential campaign against Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Di Paolo formerly ran the Castle Spa restaurant in the blue-collar Mount Pleasant section of Providence. It was there he become entwined with one of the most powerful political families in New England, the Kennedys.

Di Paolo said he remembers how a young man he didn’t recognize walked into his restaurant about 20 years ago and ordered scrambled eggs, bacon, Italian toast and orange juice. On the second visit, that Providence College student introduced himself as Patrick Kennedy, the son of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

They eventually became so close that Kennedy temporarily moved in with Di Paolo’s family.

In 1988, Kennedy made his first major foray into politics, running against a longtime incumbent representative from Di Paolo’s neighborhood. When opponents derided Kennedy as a carpet bagger, Di Paolo walked the future congressman door-to-door, using his name to vouch for the newcomer.

“Frank was the Good Housekeeping seal of approval in that race,” Kennedy said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “He was related to pretty much every person in that neighborhood.”

Kennedy said he appointed Di Paolo as his campaign treasurer rather than campaign manager largely because he wanted Di Paolo’s name on all his literature. By law, the treasurer’s name had to be printed.

“People often said I (was) running on my Kennedy name,” he said. “They didn’t realize in the first race, I was running on the Di Paolo name.”

Winning that Statehouse seat put Kennedy on a path to Washington.

And Di Paolo came along, too. He rode with Kennedy on an Amtrak train to Washington when Kennedy traded the Rhode Island Statehouse for the U.S. Capitol. Hanging at Kennedy’s side, he traveled to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II, met former President Bill Clinton – who told Di Paolo to call him Bill – and was a guest at President Bush’s Christmas party in 2005.

“Wherever Patrick was, Frank Di Paolo was,” said Larry Berman, who formerly worked on Kennedy’s staff and is now a spokesman for House Speaker William Murphy. “He’s sort of part of the Kennedy family.”

Di Paolo has no intentions of slowing down. He showed up Tuesday for the inauguration of Gov. Don Carcieri, whose wife greeted Di Paolo with a kiss. He stumped with Kennedy on the campaign trail last year and successfully lobbied the House speaker for a $10 pay raise.

His father, mother and two sisters all lived into their 90s. Genetics may be on Di Paolo’s side, although he credits his longevity to a nightly tradition.

“At dinner, I always have a glass of red wine,” he said. “Doctor told me it was a good idea to have a glass of wine when I eat. So I don’t stop.”

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