JEFFERSON COUNTY – When Frank DeAngelis first took over as principal 18 years ago, he made a promise to himself that he would find a way to fly at his final assembly at Columbine High School.
"This is the last time," DeAngelis said. "There's community members here. There's alumni here and all my kids are here and it's a special place. I've been worried about this day since the first day of school this year."
When DeAngelis announced plans to retire at the end of this school year, 9NEWS launched a project to follow DeAngelis from the first day of school this year through the last. The project is called "Rebel with a Cause."
DeAngelis made it his personal cause to rebuild the Columbine community after the tragic shootings in 1999 left 12 students and one teacher dead.
The annual prom assembly is the last chance of the year to address the school as a whole. Over the years, DeAngelis has used this assembly to show off his dramatics.
"I've been Barry Manilow. I've been Willie Wonka. I've been Rocky Balboa," DeAngelis said.
He started at Columbine 35 years ago as a social-studies teacher and coach. Now, this assembly marks the beginning of his final farewells.
"This is going to be emotional. I mean, this is 35 years coming to an end," DeAngelis said.
But, before understanding the finish. It is important to know the start and how DeAngelis spent much of his schooling working to not become an educator.
"Quiet, skinny kid that loved the game of baseball," Chris Dittman said.
Dittman first met DeAngelis on the baseball fields of Ranum High School. He was his teacher and coach at the high school located on the Adams County side of north Denver.
"I've never met a person that didn't like him," Dittman said.
DeAngelis grew up near 52nd Avenue and Tejon Street in a neighborhood overlooking downtown. Dittman calls him a 'north-side guy' raised in a strong Italian home.
"I think a lot of the values he picked up from his religious beliefs," Dittman said. "He's a very strong Catholic."
Dittman says DeAngelis exuded the north side's blue-collar toughness.
"I think Frank's greatest strength has always been his ability to develop relationships with people," Dittman said.
DeAngelis was known as a diligent hard, working student and a baseball player who hustled across the field, according to Dittman. When DeAngelis left Ranum, he had a different career in mind.
"I thought I wanted to be an accountant," DeAngelis said.
He attended Metro State but fell into an unhappy time with his studies. DeAngelis even dropped out of school for a semester and decided to work full-time. But, after a while, DeAngelis decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of the man who mentored him.
"Chris Dittman was my high school psychology teacher," DeAngelis said. "He had a major impact on my life, and I said, 'God, I'm going to go back and be an educator.'"
DeAngelis says he wanted to change the lives of young people like Dittman did for him.
"He has said that to me on several occasions, and all I can say is it made it worthwhile what I did," Dittman said.
After years of teaching social studies, coaching and mentoring kids, DeAngelis applied for the job to be principal of Columbine High School. Oddly enough, he was up against the man who stopped him from being an accountant.
"[Dittman] and I were the final candidates for Columbine," Dittman said.
Dittman remembers talking with DeAngelis in the waiting room before the final interview. Dittman went in first and instead of vying for the job, Dittman told the interviewers that they should hire DeAngelis.
"At that particular time, I began to format what I thought that school needed, and it was Frank DeAngelis," Dittman said.
Eighteen years later, DeAngelis sits perched above his 1,700 students chanting his name. DeAngelis is afraid of heights. But, he strapped himself into a device that would send him flying from a 30-foot lift and across the gymnasium. He promised himself he would do this to prove that anyone can overcome their fears.
"You're going to face many fears in your life and you to believe because if you believe in yourself, you'll get others to believe," DeAngelis said.
He delivers for the final time his installment of what he calls, "Papa De's Life Lessons."
"Do not deny your parents the opportunity to see you grow, to have your dad walk you down the aisle, to have your mom hold your first child," DeAngelis said to the students. "Take care of each other and make wise choices because I cannot lose another kid of mine."
He begins the process of saying goodbye. His last day with students will not be till May 28. Next year, he plans on working part-time as a school safety consultant for the Jefferson County School District's security department.
But, DeAngelis will always be a part of Columbine.
"The one thing I can say whether it was teaching, coaching, or being a principal, I gave it my best," DeAngelis said.
Stories on DeAngelis will run through Thursday on 4 p.m. at 9NEWS and 9NEWS at 9 p.m. At 9 p.m. on June 7, 9NEWS will air a one hour documentary called "Rebel with a Cause" which includes expanded material not seen in the previously-aired stories.
(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)