When Pat Fiorillo, 48, died on March 9, he didn’t just leave behind a wife and two daughters. He also left an estimated 10,000 students – lives he’d touched during his 23-year career at Sacajawea Middle School.
On Friday evening, scores of those students, along with friends and family, overflowed the commons at Rogers High School at a memorial, honoring the beloved teacher and coach. Many students wore T-shirts with the family motto “Never Lose Hope” on the front and a picture of the Fiorillo family on the back.
The idea for the shirts came from the eighth-grade class at Salk Middle School, where Gina Fiorillo, Pat’s younger daughter, attends.
“The kids wanted to cheer Gina up,” said Fiorillo’s widow, Robin Fiorillo. “They surprised her on a Friday a couple months ago and wore them each Friday. They were wearing them the day he died.”
Fiorillo’s battle with cancer began in September 2007. He told his friend Rob Reavis that he was going to the emergency room. “What does it mean when you have blood in your urine?” he asked Reavis.
“I joked with him,” Reavis recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, you could have cancer.’ ”
Fiorillo was known for his irreverent sense of humor and ability to deliver sarcasm with a smile, so he laughed at his friend’s words.
But he wasn’t laughing a few hours later. Fiorillo called his wife. “You’d better come down here,” he said. “I have cancer.”
Those three words irrevocably altered their lives. Within hours he underwent surgery to remove his kidney and the tumor doctors had discovered on it. He didn’t return to the classroom for the rest of that year.
Grueling rounds of chemotherapy fatigued him but didn’t extinguish his determination to conquer cancer. He told Reavis, “What else would you do? I’m a fighter. I’m going to fight.”
As a lifelong athlete, Fiorillo relished battles and didn’t enjoy losing. Friend Kevin Selland said, “He never felt like he wasn’t going to win.”
In fact, it was his love of sports that drew him to education in the first place. “He got into teaching because he wanted to coach,” said Robin Fiorillo. “Baseball was his game.”
But he also coached basketball, volleyball and track, and taught health and fitness. He couldn’t wait to return to teaching, and he did as soon as he was able.
He had a couple of reprieves, but in 2009 the cancer was back. “They found a softball-size tumor in his pelvic area,” Robin Fiorillo said.
He underwent chemo and radiation, and his doctor told him to stay home. That didn’t go over well with Pat Fiorillo. Robin Fiorillo shrugged and said, “So they did his chemo during prep period or after school.”
Despite numerous surgeries and hospitalizations, Fiorillo never lost his sense of humor. “We laughed a lot through this whole thing,” Robin Fiorillo said.
During one hospitalization Selland played a joke on him. Selland’s dad had been diagnosed with cancer around the same time as Fiorillo, and one evening they were both in the hospital. A priest came to visit his dad and Selland pulled him aside. “I asked him to go see Pat and offer to give him Last Rites.”
The priest agreed and Selland stood outside the door and heard Fiorillo’s reply. “I think you’ve got the wrong room, buddy!”
Selland laughed at the memory but grew quiet as he reflected on what he’s missing most about his friend. “We are both coaches. We talked every day. I called him after every game.”
In addition to his love of coaching, Fiorillo enjoyed cooking. His homemade ravioli was legendary. “He could cook anything,” Robin Fiorillo said.
Selland added, “He had a passion for whatever it was he did – from the kitchen to the playing field.”
At Fiorillo’s memorial service, accolades of that passion abounded, as letters from fellow teachers, students and friends were shared. But it was the letters from his daughters that brought sobs from the crowd. Older daughter Erin, a senior at Shadle Park High School, wrote, “Everyone says everything will be OK, but losing your dad or mom will never be OK.”
Gina wrote, “I was meant to be daddy’s little girl. It’s hard to think I won’t ever hear your voice again or hold your hand in public. Hard to think you won’t be able to see me get my license, turn 18, turn 21, get married, have kids. I wish you didn’t have to leave this world, but I’m glad you’re not in pain anymore.”
Friends and family said Fiorillo never gave up; he just got tired and his body gave out. At the service, Todd Bender recalled a conversation he’d had with his friend. “Toddy, that’s how I want to be remembered – just as a great guy,” Fiorillo told his friend.
Through tear-filled eyes Bender addressed the crowd: “Cancer didn’t ruin Pat’s life – it strengthened it. It was his burden that made him great.”
At Bender’s invitation, the guests stood and applauded the life of Pat Fiorillo.
One last standing ovation for coach.
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