KULPMONT - During his 34-year career in education, Joe Cesari was committed to helping youth, whether in the classroom or through his noted career as a wrestling coach.

Cesari has been retired since 1996, but, in a way, little has changed. He's still focused on helping young people.

Earlier this month, his long effort to construct a large, beautiful playground in the borough was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting at the facility at the Terry Miriello complex.

And on Sunday, the Great Kulpmont Cruise, another volunteer project through which Cesari keeps busy and helps the community, was held for the 11th year, with proceeds having benefited the playground project and local youth programs, including the Kulpmont Football and Baseball Association.

"It has always been about the youth," Cesari, 72, said while relaxing on the sunporch of his borough home last week, a rare break in a busy week with the cruise approaching. "All the activities and the work that I do has been geared to give children something to do, whether it be playing sports or having fun at a playground."

Learning on the job

Working with youth began in earnest for Cesari in 1962 when, fresh out of the University of Buffalo, he was hired as a physical education teacher at Cuba Central High School in New York.

"If you were a phys-ed teacher in the school, you were a coach," he said. "I was a former football player, so I became the head football coach, and also coached track and wrestling."

But Cesari said Cuba Central was his first foray into wrestling; he had never watched an amateur match before, let alone participated in one.

"The students and I learned about the sport together," Cesari said.

Two years later, Cesari learned about an opening in his home area - a head football coach position at then-Ashland Area High School. With a recommendation from Mount Carmel head football coach Jazz Diminick, Cesari interviewed for the job. The next day, he learned his fate.

"They hired someone else for football, but wanted me to come and be an assistant and start the wrestling program there," he said.

In the jointure that formed the North Schuylkill School District, Cesari soon became the mainstay of the program. He would amass an amazing winning percentage of 92 and led his teams to a record eight District 11 championships. Also, he coached his three sons, Steve, Mark and Joe Jr., to six individual PIAA wrestling championships.

The success resulted in the team and Cesari being featured in the January 1989 edition of Sports Illustrated. He remembers a photographer shooting one of their meets.

"He set up all these strobe lights on the ceiling. When he took a picture, it was like lightning," Cesari said.

While the records and accolades are nice, the former coach said the biggest thrill he gets is talking to former students and learning how his lessons stayed with them.

"A former wrestler owns the gym in Frackville, and he told me the first thing he did with the gym is installed a bullrope from the ceiling for people to climb, just like they did in practice," Cesari said. "I had a great group of kids wrestling for me and they remember how they had to fight through five or six other kids that wanted to be starters as well."

In his wrestling room, the former coach talked about the many motivational signs he had around the room, but one always stuck out to him.

"It said, 'Once you've wrestled, the rest of life is easy,'" Cesari recalled.

Playground response

Beyond his community volunteerism, Cesari keeps himself busy today by helping out his son and daughter with operating Subways in Coal Township and Frackville. He also runs a group travel service.

"All of that is just something to keep my mind and body going," he said.

That's in addition to serving as president of the Kulpmont Cruise Association and heading up projects like the playground.

That idea came was born from simple disbelief, he noted.

"My grandchildren were in from North Carolina and Cressona. One day, my wife wants to take them to the playground, and they have to decide whether they were going to go to Marion Heights or Mount Carmel, because there was no safe place to play in Kulpmont," he said.

Cesari set off to raise money, including through the popular Mahoney Brothers concerts held at Mount Carmel Area High School.

The borough obtained a $40,000 grant from the state department of Community and Economic Development for the playground - but it came with a catch.

"We needed to provide matching funds," Cesari said.

It could come from in-kind funding, including materials and volunteer labor. In response, Cesari organized massive work parties involving local skilled craftsmen, including those from local unions. One work party in particular stands out from last August.

"There were 50 people there, working from 7 a.m. to dark on a Saturday," he said. "They were doing whatever needed to be done to make this playground happen."

While Cesari pushes the praise to others, his efforts have certainly not gone unnoticed.

"If every community had a Joe Cesari in it, a lot of things would get done in this area," Kulpmont Mayor Myron Turlis said. "When it came to the playground, he was a man on a mission and this borough is a better place because of it."

Now that the work is done, anyone else would take time to relax, but not Cesari.

"He is up at the playground every day, either raking sand, sweeping the sidewalks, or checking the monitors on the security cameras he got at a reduced rate for us," the mayor said. "Anytime that there is something he thinks needs fixing, he comes to us, and we tell him we don't have the funds to do it, but he will find a way. I can't praise him enough."

Taking stock

No doubt Cesari is finding some time to rest today after Sunday's cruise. But he won't sit still for long.

"I like being busy," he said. "At night, I like to take stock of the day, and if I didn't accomplish anything, I'm not happy. I like to make sure that its a successful day."

The discussion reminds him of yet another lesson he taught his students years ago.

"You can't wait for things to happen," he said, "you've got to make them happen."