CLEARWATER — The wake for Nick Cavallaro started at 5 p.m. Thursday at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, in the school's James B. White Performing Arts Theater. A steady stream of colleagues, former students and friends wandered the aisles, studying tributes laid out for the man universally hailed as the father of the school's athletic program.
There were yearbooks (The Praedator) full of black-and-white photos. Awards filled several tables: a National High School Athletic Coaches Association's regional athletic director of the year in 1993; state champs, 1976, one of 335 basketball games he won as a coach over a lifetime.
Other memorials bore the markings of time and handcrafted care, such as the laminated plaque cheerleaders made for him 37 years ago. Easels full of clippings trotted out for his retirement ceremony in 1995 were trotted out again.
Mr. Cavallaro, who built an athletic program that achieved 27 state championships under his watch, died Aug. 14 after an extended illness. He was 88. Visitors paid respects at the casket near the stage, where Mr. Cavallaro was decked out in a red blazer matching the school's colors, rosary beads curled around his right hand.
"He put Clearwater Central Catholic on the map," said Mike O'Keeffe, a former Clearwater Sun sportswriter.
As a basketball coach, the man students called "Mr. Marauder" was tough but not harshly confrontational. A disgusted, "Judas Priest!" was as close as he came to swearing.
Many recalled his penchant for chewing peppermint Doublemint gum, something he could not do without during games.
"If he didn't have that gum, we would have to hit 10 or 11 7-Elevens and he would go into a panic," said Jerry Cavallaro, his son.
Born in Morgantown, W. Va., in 1925, Nicholas Cavallaro played high school sports. The Navy listed him as 5 feet 2 (generous by about 2 inches, his family said), and he served during World War II.
He majored in physical education at West Virginia University, and married Dorothy Ledford in 1954. The marriage lasted 34 years, his family said.
He took the coaching job at Clearwater Central Catholic in 1963, the year after the school was founded.
"He used to cut the grass. He used to line the fields," said John Kisz, 64, who played basketball at the school in the mid 1960s.
After struggling the first couple of years, his teams began to find a groove, despite having no home court and holding practices in the parking lot.
In 1965, Clearwater Central Catholic beat Largo High, which then had an all-county player averaging 28 points a game. When it became clear the team was headed to victory, Kisz said, "I remember looking at Nick, and he was calm and cool like he had been there 100 years."
As the school struggled financially, Mr. Cavallaro organized a "Dads Club" to maintain the grounds.
"In a time when some issues related to the school were under question, Nick was like a beacon of light," said Sister Dion Horrigan, 70, the school's former longtime principal.
Besides a gym named after Mr. Cavallaro, the school now has a lighted football field, a 440-yard track, and lighted baseball and softball fields.
Career highlights included back to back appearances in state AA basketball finals, winning in 1976 and losing in 1977.
In all sports, he insisted on playing against the best competition, withdrawing from a conference of only private schools in 1966.
"You wanted to play for him because he was positive," said lawyer Anthony Granese, 67, a former basketball player at the school. "He didn't yell at you. He wanted you to play better."
At the wake Thursday, the number of well-wishers in the theater had doubled within two hours.
Next door, workers had nearly finished laying down new maple flooring on the 13,000-square-foot Cavallaro Gymnasium, just in time for the start of another year.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.