11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
One day, when his eighth grade class was acting up, Alphonse Dattolo issued a startling ultimatum. "I told them that if they kept aggravating me," recalls Dattolo, 51, who teaches Spanish and French at Glen Rock (N.J.) Middle School, "I would be out the next day."
The students were stunned into silence. If Mr. Dattolo missed a day of school, it would ruin an attendance record perfect since September 1972. As of Oct. 13, he had been teaching for 5,131 straight days—compare that to baseball iron man Cal Ripken's record 2,632 consecutive games. In so doing Dattolo has taught with a fever and denied hundreds of kids the chance to torture a substitute. "If somebody else was in my classroom doing what I should be doing," says Dattolo, "I wouldn't feel nice about myself."
The only child of homemaker Rosetta and florist Rocco, both deceased, Dattolo has missed only a half day of school—for a flu shot in 7th grade—since he started kinder-garten in 1954. "I just always loved school," says the 1971 graduate of Montclair State College (now a university). It's fair to say he is married to his job. "I never found the girl who would put up with my teaching," says Dattolo, whose modest Haledon, N.J., home is dominated by baseball paraphernalia and statues of Abraham Lincoln. In addition to Glen Rock, he teaches at one university and one college and, during holidays and breaks, evaluates teachers at a charter school. "He's not obsessed," says his cousin Laura Hills, 49. "He's dedicated. He is a real role model."
Students do appreciate Dattolo. Eighth grader Sarah Reynolds wrote him a note he treasures. "I just wanted to say you do make a difference in a lot of people's lives," she said. "Thank you for doing what you do."