In the halls of East Islip High School, students could hear William Cea Jr. before they saw him.
The jingle of change in the school custodian's pockets -- dimes and quarters at the ready for students for a pay-phone call home or to buy lunch -- was a familiar sound in the school for more than three decades.
Cea, known by students as "Uncle Bill," died Oct. 4 of heart failure at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore. He was 80.
Cea was born in the Bronx, the oldest of William and Florence Cea's four children. As he began to crawl, his parents noticed he was dragging one side of his body, said his sister Carmen Naccarato, of East Islip. Cea had had a stroke, leaving him disabled on the left side of his body, she said.
Cea's condition caused him to struggle academically, Naccarato said, and he only went as far as elementary school before dropping out to help with his family's poultry business. Later, he worked as a salesman for the family's Bronx liquor store. "He never let his handicap stop him," his sister said.
After his father died in 1968, Cea and his mother moved into Naccarato's home in East Islip, said his brother-in-law Tony Naccarato.
He was hired as a custodian at the high school and soon became known for his smile and friendly demeanor. Cea stayed with students waiting to be picked up after school and generously contributed to student fundraisers.
"If they were selling teddy bears, he wouldn't buy one, he'd buy four," Tony Naccarato said. "If they were selling hats, he'd buy a dozen."
Cea attended as many sports games as he could, even stepping out during his lunch break to watch teams practice. The teams showed their appreciation by signing photos and equipment, items Cea treasured, his family said. Every year, the students invited Cea to their senior prom.
Even when he retired in 1990 after 19 years, Cea continued to spend time at the school. When he started having trouble walking to the fields, students and teachers chipped in to buy him a motorized scooter. Several years ago, the girls softball field was named in his honor.
"The kids absolutely loved him, and he was always looking out for their best interest," said former East Islip High School athletic director Pete Blieberg.
"For years, I would go back and the friendliest of all faces was Uncle Bill," Esiason said. "He never wanted anything from anybody, never expected anything from anybody, he just wanted to be a friend, and he was always there to be a friend."
The East Islip Athletic Booster Club is establishing a scholarship in Cea's name. Donations can be sent to East Islip Athletic Booster Club, PO Box 398, East Islip, NY 11730.