Captain Dismissal exits too soon

Bill Cirullo had a saying:

“Riverside is a school of freedoms, not a school of controls.”

Cirullo, Riverside Elementary School’s long-time principal and teacher, was renown in the Princeton Public School district for his limitless approach to education, for his ability to free students to find their paths, not just in learning but within themselves. Last Monday, Cirullo passed away at a nearby hospital surrounded by family. His unexpected exit from this world brought with it tears and a ripple of wonderful stories.

“He was the best educator I ever knew,” said Paul Chapin, standing principal and close friend of Cirullo for 33 years. “His thoughts about children and the freedoms he offered them allowed them to discover who they were; he’d help kids develop the kinds of strategies to present themselves to the world and allow the world into themselves. He was a champion of that kind of openness and freedom.”

Cirullo seemed to wipe clean the stereotype of a school principal and splash it with color and enthusiasm, guidance and understanding.

“Bill had an alter-ego: Captain Dismissal,” Chapin said. “Captain Dismissal wears a pink satin cape, a cowboy hat, ski goggles and rides a pink girls bicycle with training wheels. He’d ride the halls a few times a year often before a holiday. The kids would pour into the hallways as he rode down screaming ‘Captaiiiiin Dismissal,’” Chapin laughed in such a way that kept his friend present. “The man was out his mind.”

His passing shocked Chapin, along with most of Princeton, where Bill had been born and raised. Although he’d been in and out of school for nearly a year and a half, Chapin said Cirullo was “on a speedy road to recovery.” Everyone at Riverside expected to see him back in school any day – soaring in his cape through the corridors.

“It is a total tragedy for everybody that knew him. He was an amazing guy. He would walk into a room and had a presence that was just so – you just knew he was there,” said Bob James, another “Princeton kid” who graduated from Princeton High School four years ahead of Cirullo but grew up playing sports beside him around the neighborhood.

James described Cirullo as a father figure who always listened. He said Cirullo always provided suggestions that were meaningful yet humble.
”He had a sense of humility that made him even more special,” James said.

James and Cirullo both served on the Princeton High School Athletics Hall of Fame Committee. The committee had intended to indict Cirullo for some time but postponed it due to his health issues. James said the committee will honor him posthumously.

“When we do, I just know the ceremony will be overflowing with people,” James said. “It’s just another testament to how much his community loved him.”

“Bill always talked about Riverside as family,” voiced Adele Hagadorn, home to Riverside Elementary for 33 years. “Though we were a ‘school family,’ Bill instilled that it went deeper than that. We both were born and raised here. We loved talking about our children, families, homes, old Princeton. That’s my best memory of Bill. Not even the school; it was Bill as a person. I always called him “boss” and he’d always say, ‘I’m not your boss, I’m your colleague.’ We were equals. He respected our professional and personal opinions and differences. He was just a beautiful, beautiful man.”

“He was my friend, my writing partner, and one good drinker. He could drink a beer,” said Chapin.

Chapin and Cirullo had always spoken about writing together as teacher and principal, something Chapin felt spoke to his perspective on teaching.

“We never know which kid is going to be the next great artist, lawyer, musician, the next great construction worker or mathematician or dentist. They all have the potential for anything,” Chapin voiced. “The core of what we teach in elementary school is literacy – English literacy, kinesthetic literacy, music literacy. Bill defined literacy in so many ways because we cannot dictate one’s ability – he didn’t like that word at all,” Chapin chuckled. “He helped children find themselves and succeed in a way that was unlimited.”

Both James and Chapin mentioned the countless individuals who’d said Cirullo had taught them how to teach.

Before the kids had returned from a summer vacation, Chapin recalled a staff meeting where Cirullo preached inspiration and fun.

“Because without those two things,” Cirullo had said,  “teaching doesn’t have much to offer.”

“So much of who I am as an educator is because of who Bill helped me to become,” Chapin said. “He was bigger than life and all about enjoying what the world has to offer and he left us much too soon.”

Bill Cirullo and Paul Chapin wrote “Dynamic Assessment for Inspired Learning” for the international symposium on assessment in music education. It was the first piece at the symposium to be written by a principal and teacher.. The book, “Connecting practice, measurement, and evaluation: selected papers from the fifth international symposium on assessment in music education,” was published the day Cirullo went into the hospital. Chapin presented their finished work to Cirullo’s family a few days after he passed.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida