February 17, 2016

Beloved Educator Riverside Principal Bill Cirullo Dies


“LARGER THAN LIFE:” Bill Cirullo, who died Monday, was principal of Riverside Elementary School for thirty years. “He always brought out the best in the kids and the parents.” (Photo Courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

Bill Cirullo, principal of Riverside Elementary School for 30 years, died Monday after complications from a stroke. A graduate of the Princeton school system and an elementary and middle school teacher for 19 years before being appointed principal, Mr. Cirullo was “at once both deeply humble and larger than life,” stated Princeton Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane.

Born and raised on Humbert Street, Mr. Cirullo taught sixth grade at Community Park School, which he had attended as a boy, then sixth through eighth grades at John Witherspoon Middle School, where he was also chair of the social studies department. After working for the district for a year on curriculum development and instruction in the elementary schools, he taught fourth grade at Riverside for three years before his appointment as principal 30 years ago.

“Bill understood that what he was doing was going to have an impact for decades,” stated Mimi Omiecinski, Princeton resident and parent of a Riverside graduate. “The guy really knew how to lead. He created a sense of community. You knew kids were safe. He had a flair for humor, personality, and charisma. There was not a kid at that school that he didn’t touch in a personal way. He always brought out the best in the kids and the parents.”

His inspiration spread far. Alexis Watson, who grew up in Princeton and currently works as a special education teacher in New York City, described how Mr. Cirullo “became a teacher, mentor, and role model for me as I was starting my teaching career. Throughout my college career, Mr. Cirullo invited me into his school with open arms, which allowed me to gain hands-on experience working with students and teachers in a loving and respectful community. Mr. Cirullo’s passion for education shone through everywhere he went and in every word he spoke to students, teachers, parents and guests. HIs creative spirit spread through the hallways and classrooms.”

Describing Mr. Cirullo as “a commanding presence in the classroom or on the lacrosse field,” Mr. Cochrane said, “He was also simple and self-effacing enough to don a cape, a cowboy hat, and a pair of goggles to delight the children of Riverside Elementary School as Captain Dismissal!”

According to Mr. Cochrane, Mr. Cirullo was “a committed teacher, a talented coach, and a knowledgeable principal. Bill always put the needs of children and families first. Bill reveled in deep conversations and spontaneous laughter. He had an innate ability to connect with and to inspire others no matter how old or young they might be.”

Ms. Omiecinski, whose family moved to Princeton ten years ago largely because of the Riverside School and its leader, explained, “When I met Bill Cirullo and the team at Riverside, it [the move] was a done deal. He was a game-changer. He knew how to take kindergarteners and make something really special. We were really lucky.”

Commenting on the environment Mr. Cirullo fostered at Riverside, Mr. Cochrane described “a very special school culture, rich in joy, laughter and new ideas. Bill loved being a principal and felt that one of the best parts of his job was being enriched by his staff. ‘When you work with great people — when you work with visionaries,’ he once stated, ‘it is like an endless riot of ideas and possibilities.’” A school garden, a turtle pond, a black box theater, a diverse pre-school, and many curriculum initiatives are all part of the legacy he leaves at Riverside.

Also an athlete and coach, Mr. Cirullo starred on the Princeton High School football and track teams and later coached football and lacrosse at PHS. He founded the Bobby Campbell Lacrosse Foundation, named for a former Riverside student, to bring lacrosse to underprivileged youth, and he coached an adult lacrosse team in Princeton for a decade.

“Bill loved the give and take of competition,” Mr. Cochrane said, “and encouraged his student-athletes to take the lessons and teamwork they learned on the field and apply it to everyday life.”

Survivors include his wife Susan, two grown children, Casey Upson (married to Lionel Upson) and Billy Jr., and two grandchildren. “He will be deeply missed by his Riverside family, the Princeton community, and all of us who knew him,” wrote Mr. Cochrane in a letter to the community. “We hold Bill and his family in our thoughts and prayers, and we honor his memory by remembering the joy and passion with which he lived his life.”

Three years ago, in discussing his work, Mr. Cirullo stated, “I get great enjoyment in my day by being with our students. I became an educator to interact with kids, so I preserve that. I have the best of the best jobs in the world.”