“As I enter my retirement years, I have been asked numerous times, ‘what would you do differently if you had a second chance in life?’ My response is simple and always the same – I would change nothing.
I certainly would want to be born in Italy to the same parents, immigrate to this great country, go through the Nutley Public School system, work at the same job I loved for 35 years in Cedar Grove, marry my wife Judy, have the same family tree with John and Danny as sons, Maria and Stacy as daughters in law and Michael, Frankie, and Daniel as grandsons, and have all of you as friends. Obviously you could not ask for a better life.”
-Mike Geltrude at his retirement dinner
Mike was born Michele Geltrude on December 2, 1939 in Barletta, Italy, the only child to Cosimo Damiano and Anna Geltrude. Soon after Michael’s birth, his father, a sailor in the Italian Merchant Marines, jumped shipped in the United States with the hope of securing a better future in America for his wife and child. While Cosimo started to work in the U.S. to save money to bring his family over, Mike was essentially raised by his mother and grandmother in a very tiny and humble basement “apartment” with no running water and livestock roaming the cobblestone streets. Life in wartime Italy was a difficult task but the young Michele found ways to amuse himself by playing soccer and stealing the neighbors’ tomatoes. Finally in September of 1951 at the age of 11, Mike and his mother managed to get on a boat for Ellis Island. Their American dream had officially begun.
Upon arrival, the family settled in Nutley, NJ where Mike would attend Lincoln elementary school as a fifth grader. Since he did not speak a word of English and English as a second language classes were not an option, Mike was forced to be held back twice in that grade until he could learn the language. It was at that point that Mike discovered one of his life’s true loves – Mathematics. He found that you did not have to understand English to excel at math and he was hooked on numbers for the rest of his life. He also made his first friend here by the name of Charles Kuczkiscki, and was taken under the wing of his “big brother” Sam Stellatella. They would remain friends until Mike’s death some 55 years later. Mike’s admirable traits of loyalty and dedication to his friends had been established.
Always one for athletics, Mike bought a strange new game to Nutley with him from Barletta. No one in this town had ever seen anything like it, and the local newspaper ran an article on the 15 yr old eighth grader in 1954. The game was called soccer and Mike was often seen around town bouncing a ball off his head or kicking it around. Later that year Mike discovered the next love of his life – Judith Verrico. The two would remain soul mates for the next 50 years, yet again, loyal, faithful, and dedicated to the end.
As a high school freshman Mike quickly learned that soccer was not a option in high school sports, so he learned the nearest thing – Football, after all that is what they called soccer in Italy. Having never played or seen the game before Mike’s toughness and athleticism quickly shined through as he worked his way up to starting quarterback for the varsity team of 1957 & 1958. In his senior year he led the team to a 7-1 record and a final ranking of #3 in the state with the only loss coming to state champion East Orange. Mike also set the Nutley high school record the previous season with a punt of 82 yards. In the off season, he also ran track and won 2 varsity letters in that sport. Off the field Mike was just as active, acting as the class treasurer, and excelling in academics, particularly math. Here, Mike once again established life long friendships with many teammates and classmates that lasted until his death, loyalty and dedication.
During the summer months, Mike would work with his father, tarring hot roofs in Newark. The work was difficult, but he never shied away from a hard task. The money he earned would eventually come in handy as he put himself through Seton Hall University. At Seton Hall, Mike needed to use all his athletic abilities again since Seton Hall did not have a football team, the sport he now grew to love. However, they did have a soccer team and Mike proceeded to earn 3 varsity letters in a sport that he hadn’t practiced in 5 years! He became the first Nutley graduate to earn a Division I varsity letter in soccer. Mike received his Bachelor’s degree in the difficult major of mathematics, and would eventually return to Seton Hall to earn a master’s degree in Education and yet another Master’s degree in Mathematics. Mike’s fate of becoming an influential math teacher and mentor had now been decided and his commitment to education was apparent in him being the youngest person ever to run for a seat on Nutley’s board of Education in 1964 at the age of 24.
1964 was a milestone year for Mike as he got married to the love of his life and started his first teaching job at Cedar Grove High School where he would remain until his retirement some 35 years later – loyalty and dedication. During his tenure, he poured his heart and soul into, not only teaching mathematics and calculus to his students, but teaching life. This effect cannot be underestimated, as an incredibly large number of his students went on to become teachers themselves, citing Mr. Geltrude as their inspiration to do so. His tireless efforts in staying late to tutor those who needed extra help, and writing recommendations to help others get into the college of their choice would never be forgotten. He loved his job and it showed, and his reward was being named chairman of the Mathematics department in 1985 until his retirement in 1998. He also developed several new friendships with fellow teachers who, like his previous friends, would be with him until his dying day.
Even the birth of his first son, Daniel John, in 1965, and his second son, John Michael in 1971, wasn’t enough to tire Mike out, and even though he was working and going to graduate school at the same time, Mike’s love for athletics would eventually lead him to coaching where his passion for sport and unique teaching styles would make him an incredible success on the sidelines. Whether it was coaching Midget football in Nutley in the early 1960’s, or high school track in the 1970’s, or traveling soccer in the 1980’s, the same dedication and loyalty Mike had shown to everyone else in his life was magnified 10 fold when it came to his athletes. As a track and cross country coach at Cedar Grove from 1965-1995, he went above and beyond what a coach is expected to do at that level. Personally driving kids to far away events when they couldn’t get a ride, or entering the teams in tournaments, exposing the students to a whole new level of competition. The commitment paid off as he was named NJ track coach of the year with fellow coach George Jenkins in 1979. More importantly was the impact he had on every one of these athletes who played for him.
As Mike’s two sons grew up and were interested in playing soccer, Mike committed himself to teaching them, and hundreds of others, the correct way to play the game, and dedicated the entire decade of the 1980’s to re-inventing the way northern New Jersey approached the exciting prospect of traveling soccer for youths. Perhaps the greatest of all of Mike’s achievements was the organizing and development of exchange programs with a number of foreign countries such as Germany, Ireland, France, and of course, Italy. Mike initiated of the first foreign trips of a youth soccer team from NJ, when, in 1981, he brought 25 players and coaches to Germany. The following year, the German team came to Nutley, and Mike not only organized soccer games and activities for the players, but was able to convince families from all over the county to host these players in their homes. The experience from this and the other countries had a life long impact on everyone who had the privilege to be a part of the program. The reward for Mike came full circle when, in 1988, he took his son’s John team on a tour of Italy culminating with a tournament in Mike’s hometown of Barletta. As with the other sports he coached, the success Mike had could not be fully understood with wins and losses, but with the tremendous learning and cultural experience Mike was able to provide to hundreds of players and their families. As with his teaching career, Mike’s influence has inspired dozens of former players and athletes to pursue coaching activities of their own.
What sometimes gets lost in Mike’s history is how hard he worked to support his family. Mike would supplement his humble teacher’s salary by teaching evenings at Bloomfield College, or refereeing high school sports events. It is truly amazing to think how much this man could get done in one day. His organizing and leadership abilities extended to social events including running a yearly ski trip to the Italian Alps, organizing various high school class reunions, initiating numerous charity and fundraising benefits, as well as being a member of community groups which provide scholarships and contributions to many people and causes. Mike never bragged or boasted about his accomplishments, and never sought accolades or financial gain. He simply gave of himself to make others happy and better people. As Mike entered his golden years he looked forward to the happiest role of his life as a grandfather. Those who knew him saw the pride he took in teaching his grandsons to do their math homework or playing soccer, for this was his true legacy.
When Mike was diagnosed with an often deadly and incurable form of Skin Cancer known as Malignant Melanoma in 2004, he didn’t cry or pout or feel sorry for himself. In true form, he prepared himself for the fight of his life, but was also at peace knowing that his life was truly one that had realized its’ full potential and his work here had been accomplished with a zeal that not many people had witnessed before and may never see again. As was his nature as a teacher, Mike was committed to raising awareness about this deadly yet often preventable and detectable form of cancer so no other family would have to endure the same struggle his did. Mike lived life with an energy and optimism that should serve as an example to all that knew him, his generosity and selflessness will be remembered for many, many years to come, and his dignity and courage when facing his own mortality inspired hundreds if not thousands who knew him. This was Mike’s message.
Ability to connect with each individual on a deeply personal and genuine level.