'Coach' Cassidy leaves legacy in Falls

Founder of youth basketball association was 'a born teacher'

Jan. 25, 2011

Menomonee Falls — To get an idea of the true impact of Menomonee Falls coach and educator John Cassidy, just take a snapshot of his relationship with his long-time friend Andy Cerroni.

Cassidy, 55, passed away Jan. 20 from complications of the debilitating disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

"It's sad," said Cerroni, an elementary teacher in the Falls School District. "He was a great man who was loved by so many people. Throughout this entire fight (with ALS), he never put himself first. He always had compassion for others.

"That was the really great thing about him, he always made everyone feel special. He really listened with his heart. He couldn't shake your hand or give you a hug at the end and he was so mad about that.

"But he looked you in the eye and told you what he thought."

Cassidy, frequently known just as "Coach," was a founder, board member, vice president and volunteer coach of the Menomonee Falls Youth Basketball Association/Junior Indians. He also coached Little League and Falcons/Junior Indians baseball, and in the end, made himself a welcomed and valued presence in Cerroni's fourth-grade classroom in the Falls.

He was a recipient of the Menomonee Falls Friends of Education Award and the Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association Award.

And that is just scratching the surface, said Cerroni, who is also the Sussex Hamilton boys basketball coach.

Kids get coaches together

The two families have been friends since Cerroni taught Cassidy's daughter, Kara, back when she was a fourth-grader.

"He found out that I coached basketball and that we both had kids in the same grade (Cassidy's son, Conor, and Cerroni's son, Kameron)," said Cerroni. They put together a traveling basketball team centered around the two boys, now both college freshmen, and then became fast friends.

"We stayed together in spring (in area leagues) and then we traveled together all summer (for tournaments)," said Cerroni. "He sat right next to me on the bus."

And the two would get even closer. Cassidy received his diagnosis of ALS, which is a neurological disease that gradually wastes away the muscles, in September 2008. He had begun his professional life as an educator and would close it as such, too.

"He worked (at General Electric) for as long as he could," said Cerroni, "and the summer after he had to quit, he asked me if he could make visits to my classroom (to help out)."

" 'I can only watch so much ESPN,' " Cerroni noted him saying.

Pushed fourth-graders to excel

"He was only going to do it once or twice a week, but then it got to be every day," Cerroni said. "He was always an educator first, a born teacher. He just had a passion for learning. He always pushed the kids to be their best. He would come in in the morning, when we would be working on our reading and writing block.

"And it got to be that I had to make sure everyone (in the class) got a chance to work with him. If he stopped over by someone three times and another only once, I heard about it. He taught them to put their heart into things. That if you put your name on it, it had better be a masterpiece. He held them to high standards behavior-wise, too.

"He would also listen, be it about their volleyball game or their recital, he would always intently pay attention. The kids just wanted to share everything with him and he really brought out the best in them."

The friendship took other forms, too, as Cassidy did some scouting for Cerroni and always called Cerroni on game Fridays to wish him luck.

"That's how he was with me, how he was with everybody," Cerroni said.

Cerroni was so happy for Cassidy in the 2009-2010 school year, as his only son, Conor, played large roles on the WIAA state finalist Falls football team and its Greater Metro Conference boys basketball team.

Students pay tribute

Cerroni is now working hard with his fourth-graders, explaining to them why Mr. Cassidy won't be back anymore.

"I'm trying to tell them, that he's gone, but not from your hearts," Cerroni said. "Remember the impact that he had, and as you get older, try to be the special person that he was. Put other people first."

The wake for Cassidy was Tuesday at Schmidt & Bartelt in the Falls and the service was held on Wednesday at St. James Catholic Church.

At the time of the interview, Cerroni was working with his fourth-graders for a special tribute they were going to do at the Wednesday service.

"They loved him dearly," said Cerroni. "So many parents of kids talked about what John did for their child. He really became a part of their lives. Some kids say they have really liked certain teachers, but these kids adored him.

"This is going to be hard. The fact that he's gone is almost too much for me to wrap my head around."

Cassidy is survived by his wife, Lynn; son, Conor; daughters, Kelsey and Kara; parents, Jack and Barbara Cassidy; and three brothers and one sister.

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