I finally met Tim Cerutti in 2015. I’d heard his name for years—even caught glimpses of him across softball fields around the city; Cerutti was a true living legend in the St. Louis sports scene. Having retired from classrooms almost a decade earlier, Cerutti decided to make his final move from Parkway Central and dedicate his last years to the student athletes at Webster Groves High School, where I’d recently accepted an alumni coaching position.
Cerutti and I coached J.V. softball alongside Bob Berndt. No coaching staff in St. Louis—and maybe the entirety of America—was better read than ours; a modest library and learning annex blossomed in our triangle, much to our students’ delight.
When you’re coaching young women in the ways of both athletics and the greater world, it helps to have balance. Cerutti and Berndt, equipped with the insights of time, were foil to my approachable youth. In short, the three of us made a great team.
When they first shook hands, you might have mistakenly believed Berndt and Cerutti had known each other all their lives. The simple, straightforward way they discussed everything—experiences inside and outside the classroom, teaching and life philosophies, sports, politics, sports politics—is how I imagine Cerutti spoke to his own brothers. The youngest of four boys, Cerutti was an easygoing conversationalist who loved to learn what made other people happy, then discuss it at length.
By the grace of God, I found myself able to keep pace with these two. It turns out watching M.A.S.H. until your eyes bleed really does have an eventual upswing.
What made our friendship so natural was the reason we all went into coaching, our shared mission, that thing lodged in the center of each person’s heart: to enrich the lives of our students.
We accomplished that. It’s one of the few things I can say with unflinching confidence.
But this isn’t about softball. No, this is one of the few times that Tim Cerutti will not be on the field. He will not wear cleats or a glove. He won’t even be in the classroom most of the time.
When you consider a life—your beloved English teacher from middle school, your neighbor, your softball coach—you also have to wonder what they do when they’re not in your direct line of sight.
It became clear to me, though he did not disclose it directly, that the major commonality between Tim Cerutti and me was how we spent our free time: deep in the trenches of thought, writing with ferocity in search of truth.
October 28, 1987
I think the reason I pulled my car to the side of the road was because the tree was so much of what I wanted to be. It stood alone in the farmer’s field. Probably it had been too large, and I like to think too majestic, for the farmer to cut down when he cleared the land. It was huge: a few individual branches large enough to be trunks on their own. And it was white—pale white—stark white—as only a sycamore can be in the late fall. Everything else around it had turned brown. Even its own leaves had turned brown. The contrast was nearly startling. And if anything ever said strength more convincingly, I can’t imagine what it could have been. But the strength was not so much from the size, the look of power, but the solitary nature of it. This tree stood alone. It was a sycamore, but in name only. It was a solitary tree, separate not only from other sycamores, but from other trees altogether. For me then, it became the embodiment of what a tree should be—so I named it Tree. And having named it, I enjoyed it more, for then it became my tree. No, that isn’t right! Not my tree, it obviously belonged only to itself, but it became a tree that I knew, a tree I could take pride in saying was a piece of my life. So I went out and stood next to the tree and the tree gladly accepted me. That somewhat surprised me, for I thought perhaps it was too solitary to let me be a part of its world. I should have known that one that willing to stand on its own, as it wishes, where it pleases, would allow the same of others—and even be proud that someone had noticed its stand and chose to stand with it.
One Saturday afternoon just before our second softball season began, an electric blue envelope embossed with a small feather quill showed up in my mailbox. I wasn’t sure how Cerutti got my address, but knew better than to leave his letter unanswered.
Even though we were seeing each other almost every day, we began a private correspondence—one never referenced on the field. We discussed topics considered too “soft” for athletics: philosophy, memory, poetry, religion, love.
In one such letter, Cerutti referenced his desire to someday publish a children’s book—a longtime dream of his, he admitted. I asked if he knew what it would be about. Yes, he wrote back. A few ideas.
- If I could fly—
- not in an airplane, or with the help of wings,
- or other men—but on my own, fly—
- then I believe I could make my life a success.
- Not that flying is the most singularly great
- accomplishment a man could achieve;
- but just imagine the reaction, worldwide.
- People would come from miles, across continents,
- across oceans—to see me, to watch me, to listen
- to me speak.
- And if I were given the ability to accomplish
- such a feat, then I also believe I would be given
- the power to live, to be, to say these things—
- I would say peace,
- I would say courage,
- I would say hope,
- but most of all I would say love.
- Love of all men, love of all animals, love of all things.
- And if I were lucky, if I were very, very lucky
- then one man would hear what I would say, and
- would believe—not in me, but in the truths
- being spoken.
- And this one man would learn to live a life of love.
- He would love all men, all animals, all things—and
- all that he came in contact with would love him,
- because they would feel his love.
- From this man perhaps one other man would learn
- to live a life of love.
- And someday, certainly not in my generation,
- or my children’s generation,
- but someday; all men will love all men,
- all animals, all things—the world would
- be a place of love, and it would be complete.
- If I could fly.
- If I could love.
Cerutti didn’t have to explain to me that he belonged to a certain generation—one where softness was beaten out of boys to expose a mantle of rigid emotionlessness. Early in his academic career, while teaching at a St. Louis Catholic school, Cerutti took great issue with the principal nun broadcasting paddlings over the school intercom—rightfully so, I’m sure most readers will agree.
“I understand that there are a very few times when paddling might conceivably be of value,” Cerutti said, “but no one should enjoy it—and certainly not as much as you do.”
In the movie version, the cruel nun stops her daily paddlings altogether. But in reality, Cerutti quit his job and moved to Mount Hope Elementary in the Fort Zumwalt District. This was his first job in public education, which presented new rewards and challenges. Though the school provided primers for each classroom, Cerutti found them outdated and uninspiring, so he self-funded new literature for his students to use—not textbooks, but novels. Books of substance and imagination.
Cerutti wasn’t a man of policy, but one of principle. He hated the term “sacrifice,” believing it to be a way of establishing power dynamics within relational hierarchies. He would never say that he “sacrificed” for his students, rather that he was simply dedicated to their success and happiness.
Dad Never Cried
The letter read: “…Infantry training will be finished in just over one week. The troop is heading for Vietnam in early to mid September. I’ve gotten my orders already, and I’ll be home by the twenty-seventh. I’ve got a surprise for you. Love, Patrick.” Mom cried. Dad never cried, but he tore up the letter.
The whole family met him at Lambert Airport. We waited as flight 171 from San Diego unloaded, then cheered as we saw Patrick, pressed in the Army’s khaki best, come down the ramp. I probably cheered the loudest. Not only was Patrick my closest brother, but also his new mustache meant I’d just won my bet against Michael. Patrick’s I’ve-Got-A-Surprise-For-You mustache just helped me to five of Michael’s dollars.
Michael and I got to him first. We gave and received bear hugs all around. Mom was next. She was crying, of course, and Patrick held her a long moment. Dad extended his huge hand to Patrick’s. Dad never hugged or kissed but Dad’s handshake meant love in our family and we all knew that Dad never cried.
Supper was just family. Mom usually invited droves of aunts, uncles, and cousins for any kind of party or reunion, but tonight Patrick had asked for just family. We had started to watch the news just before eating, but the war was once again the feature.
“Seventeen marines were either killed or missing-in-action when a troop-copter went down near the village—” was all the announcer got out before Dad pulled the plug.
“Damned TV! If we can’t get a better picture than that we might as well get rid of the thing.”
Nonetheless, supper went very pleasantly. Everybody talked ceaselessly about anything and everything that was unimportant. The war was never mentioned.
After dessert, Patrick asked, “well, what do you want to see first, my orders or my surprise?”
Michael responded quickly, “your surprise,” and shot me a Cheshire Cat grin. I reached for the the five in my pocket.
Patrick disappeared into the bedroom and we could hear him opening and closing his still unpacked suitcase. “I decided to let you see my orders first anyway.”
I held out my hand for them, but he walked past me, over to Dad. Dad set the envelope down, put on his glasses, pushed them up on his nose, then, finally, pulled Patrick’s orders from the envelope.
Dad sat there for a long, anxious time, his eyes focused on the paper, his mind focused elsewhere.
Then, finally: “Patrick, is this the truth?”
He stood, and held Patrick, and the huge factory-worker arms of my father trembled.
Then he hid his face in his hands and left the room, leaving the rest of us scrambling to see Patrick’s orders—which read: Honorable Medical Discharge.
The four of us cheered and hugged and cried with joy, but Dad, who came back after a long time—“must have eaten something that disagreed with me”—never cried.
If you’re even slightly unconvinced about the phrase “behind every great man stands an even greater woman,” know your hesitation would be completely put to bed after meeting Barb Cerutti.
Barb is the woman all women want to become. She is unbelievably kind. Her core values are wisdom, love, decency, and gratitude. She’s beautiful, but approachably so. She’s athletic enough to be the perfect pickleball partner, but you can rest assured she won’t suddenly turn to you and suggest a forty-meter dash. Barb loves to garden. She oversees the Cerutti Family Foundation, which promotes continued learning for both students and teachers.
But before all else, Barb is Tim Cerutti’s soulmate—across lifetimes, through illness, they’ve fostered a death-defying partnership. Barb describes their marriage as a lifestyle centered around the joy of others. “He loved making people feel important. Seen, known … Understood,” Barb clarifies. “He would just bring people into the family.”
It’s immediately clear to me what she means by this. During the Cerutti era at Webster Groves High School, his motto, Choose Happy, became a mantra that extended way beyond the fields. Even our coaching staff became attached to it, reminding each other of its power and wisdom in group texts, foisting it to sign off mass emails. One group of alumni went so far as to tattoo this phrase in Cerutti’s handwriting on various limbs after going away to college. I can’t say this idea hasn’t crossed my mind, as well.
I have several handwritten tattoos—my grandparents, my father, and David Clewell. When considering a tattoo in someone’s handwriting, you have to weigh a lot of variables. Most importantly: will this person never, ever hurt you more than what you experience while under the needle?
Cerutti was someone who student-athletes trusted with the familial adoration reserved for those truly rare, exceptional mentors. His life was dedicated, entirely, to each student who wandered into his world. He was honestly unable to inflict pain; his natural disposition demanded too much love, too much authentic joy. Choose Happy wasn’t just Cerutti’s catchphrase—it was the lifestyle to which he and Barb ascribed.
“He lived his motto,” Bob Berndt recalls. “No more authentic human ever walked the planet. The world and I are better for his presence.”
- When my life winds down to days by numbers told,
- I pray that they,
- who pray for me,
- will tell of tales bold.
- Of joys and love and life, of beauty beyond a dream.
- To win the smile
- of all who live,
- and love, the only scheme.
- Of reaching out a hand to grasp the morning sky
- and spread that light
- to all the world
- on the wings of a butterfly.
- Of touching every child whom I am blessed to meet.
- And deliver youth,
- through childrens’ truth,
- to each man on the street.
- May they say that I (and fondly too), though I had no real plan,
- gave love to all,
- and had a ball,
- and helped my fellow man.
When I finally asked about the blue feather, Cerutti disclosed that after his last year of teaching, he handmade a set of stationary inspired by his favorite book—Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. He suggested that if I hadn’t already, I should read it.
My father always liked Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, so I decided to call around. You’ll imagine my surprise when Dunaway Books in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis said they’d just taken in a secondhand copy of Illusions the night before. That drive through an unseasonably cool August afternoon felt particularly dreamlike. The purchase, unreal. I read the book in one sitting.
It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that you can open Illusions to any page and gain wisdom. This was exactly what being friends with Cerutti was like; at any moment, he could turn to you, twinkle in his eye, and say something that might change your entire life.
- Now, while I am weary—
- now, while I sit in my empty rooms—
- now, while my eyes are bleary—
- now, while I’m enclosed in gloom—
- now, while my mind is haunted—
- now, while my feet tread slow—
- now, while my being is taunted—
- now, while my life is my foe—
- Now, when I need you most—
- be with me
- so I can gaze at you
- and cling to you
- and raise the spirits of my soul.
In true Cerutti spirit, I gave my first copy of Illusions away to someone who needed it. Inside the dust jacket was a beautiful inscription: one friend wishing another well, a happy birthday, and love in the coming year.
Now I have a copy that doesn’t leave my office—a first edition from The Book House in Maplewood.
“We don’t have any mass market copies,” the owner said into the receiver, “but I do have a first edition that’s gorg—”
“Hold it for me,” I cut her off. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” “Okay, but it’s kind of expensi—”
“It’s fine. I don’t care. Just hold it for me.”
- My greatness lingers, just ahead,
- though the years with mist are spread.
- But that thickness which seems to stop my way
- will disappear with dawning day,
- and I will step into the light,
- never again to face the night
- of shortened trails to unknown places
- of solitude and nameless faces.
- I will know the icy chill
- that comes with making life a thrill.
- And I will know the resplendent heat
- that comes with the unachievable feat.
- All this, before my God I meet.
I took the book out to the car and sat with it in my lap for a long time.
Like tarot cards, I imagine that each copy of Illusions is able to soak up its reader’s energy, dreams, hopes, fears—then show them what they need to see. I closed my eyes and cut the book with my thumb and index finger, opening to page 121.
a test to find
whether your mission on earth
If you’re alive,