Mr. DiCaprio and his wife, Linda.
Mr. DiCaprio and his wife, Linda.
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Richard "Rit" DiCaprio has always felt called to things, whether it was a football career, the police force, coaching youth sports or serving his community and parishes.

Now, after 15 years of discerning a call to the diaconate, the 60-year-old Schenectady native is gearing up for his May 25 ordination as a permanent deacon for the Albany Diocese. He'll be one of four permanent deacons and two transitional deacons, who are studying for the priesthood.

When he pictured the ceremony, during which Bishop Hubbard, "who's in a direct line from St. Peter," lays his hands on the candidates, Mr. DiCaprio declared, "What's more heart-inspiring than that? Right from Jesus, the son of God. I'm in that line now, and I can't believe it. I still don't think I'm worthy."

The soon-to-be deacon grew up in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Schenectady and attended the University of Maryland on a football scholarship. He picked up a passion for woodworking while earning his degree in general studies. After graduating in 1975, he played for the Albany Metro Mallers semi-professional team for a few years and worked as a laborer for General Electric before marrying at the age of 22.

On duty
He started two decades as a Schenectady police officer in 1979, working midnight shifts in the Hamilton Hill area of Schenectady. "Something directed me there," he said, but the job wasn't what he expected: "It was emotional. [I felt] anger at people, sometimes anger at God, anger definitely at the system. There was a time there when I felt anger for the victims."

He witnessed homicides, suicides, homelessness, child abuse and other tragedies, including a night in the mid-1980s when five teenagers were killed in a car accident.

"You just tuck it away," he said. "That's the thing about being a police officer."

Mr. DiCaprio has never forgotten being called to a burglary and realizing the young homeowner had been raped. Back then, there were no counselors on such scenes.

"This poor girl - I still see her face," he said. "She was traumatized. I couldn't do anything for her. Until [her boyfriend] got there, I was just hugging her."

Mr. DiCaprio's wife, Linda, says this period made her husband more "guarded" and "skeptical. It was kind of sad because there was a lot more negativity in his personality than ever before."

But he softened as he took on specialized assignments, like SWAT and dive teams. And after 15 years, Mr. DiCaprio won a bid to become a D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer in nine city schools.

"[It was] so good to see him back to the sweet, open-hearted person he always was," Mrs. DiCaprio said. "His heart has a lot of magnetism. He can draw a crowd."

DARE to dream
Mr. DiCaprio said his colleagues viewed his D.A.R.E. position as unmanly, but he felt drawn to educating second- and fifth-graders on peer pressure, self-esteem and drug prevention. His presence helped the children warm up to police officers, whom they normally associated with crime in their neighborhoods.

The officer visited each school once a week for 18-week courses. He also started flag football leagues at each, attended PTO meetings and concerts and chaired fundraisers with his wife. He said the "say no to drugs" message was only a fraction of the D.A.R.E. goal; he mostly advised kids, "Don't look for love in all the wrong places, like with gangs.

"We tried to teach them," he explained. "We tried to show the other way. It takes work to turn away from crime."

In his spare time, Mr. DiCaprio enjoys woodworking, kayaking, walking and making wine. He retired in 2001 and started considering the diaconate after a series of personal hardships in the 1990s and early 2000s: His sister-in-law and father-in-law died unexpectedly; he had a heart attack; his wife developed macular degeneration; and his middle child was deployed to Iraq.

Fork in the road
The police lifestyle was also beginning to catch up with him. A deacon at his parish, St. John the Evangelist in Schenectady, mentored him, and another parishioner invited him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which he said "changed my life completely."

All the while, he and Mrs. DiCaprio served St. John's as ushers, eucharistic ministers and pastoral council members, chaired the decorating committee and led a novena group. Mrs. DiCaprio was also the secretary at Schenectady High School.

The couple managed their busy schedule with "no sleep," Mr. DiCaprio said with a laugh. "I couldn't say no. Our kids are the same way."

They also volunteered at Schenectady's City Mission and continue to do so through Our Lady Queen of Peace parish, where Mr. DiCaprio has completed a practicum on the way to being ordained a deacon.

In 2002, inspired by their service work, the couple entered the former diocesan Formation for Ministry Program. Mr. DiCaprio was already feeling "that pull" to the diaconate.

"I wanted to go further than just lay ministry, not even knowing what was further," he said. "I just wanted to give more of myself."

He applied for the diaconate in 2008 and served, during his formation, at senior meal sites for Catholic Charities of Schenectady County and as a chaplain at Albany Medical Center.

"That was extremely powerful," he said of the latter experience, which he calls "the closest I felt to God. I learned the reason why we pray. You can't do that ministry without prayer. I found the words to comfort people."

At Our Lady Queen of Peace, the DiCaprios have joined the Altar Rosary Society and the festival committee; just as it was hard to leave St. John's, it will be hard to leave this parish when the new deacon gets his first liturgical assignment.

But he says he's "as ready as I'll ever be" to serve God's people: "I never imagined it could be this awesome."