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Mr. C: a teacher of life

Posted by Eric Fisher On June 2

Fisher column logo2It’s difficult to categorize Fred Catona.

Catona, whose life was tragically taken too soon Tuesday night in a car accident, was my gym teacher for most of my time in elementary and high school. Everyone remembers their gym teacher, for better or worse, so I figured that a tribute to Fred would be appropriate on a sports Web site.

But Fred wasn’t just a gym teacher, a position unfairly relegated to the lower level of the teaching profession – even when given the supposedly more respectable title of physical education teacher. He also was a coach, an athletic director and a health teacher.

But Fred didn’t simply teach about health. He taught about life.

Fred was a memorable teacher. But he was more than a teacher. He opened his own sandwich shop, an endeavor that required him to take a hiatus from teaching.

He built upon his foray into the food business by creating “A Taste of Philadelphia,” which would mail Philly-style foods, such as hoagies, soft pretzels and Tastykakes, to people around the country and around the world.

But Fred never settled for ordinary. He always strived for extraordinary.

Not satisfied with sending hoagies around the world, Fred tried to send a hoagie into space. The plan was to send the hoagie with astronaut Guion Bluford Jr., the first African-American in space and a graduate of Overbrook High School, located not far from the old Har Zion synagogue site in Wynnefield (slightly more than a block away from Saint Joseph’s University), where Catona served as athletic director and gym teacher before accompanying Akiba Hebrew Academy and Solomon Schechter Day School on their move across City Line Ave. to separate sites in Lower Merion Township. Unfortunately, despite attempts to develop a hoagie safe for space travel, NASA eventually turned down the hoagie-in-space idea.

The innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that sparked A Taste of Philadelphia and the hoagie-in-space pursuit was instrumental in Fred’s success in his next career: marketing.

Fred created “Radio Direct Response,” an advertising agency which focused on direct response radio marketing. When asked to publicize a new Web site selling airline tickets, Fred signed up William Shatner as a celebrity endorser. The former Captain Kirk and Priceline.com became synonymous as the new company, with Fred’s assistance, became a gargantuan success. Priceline.com was followed by many other successful advertising campaigns, including FreeCreditReport.com.

In hindsight, Fred’s ability to reach audiences through marketing isn’t surprising. He was equally successful in connecting with his students.

In gym class we learned the names of practically every bone and muscle in the body. I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering the external occipital protuberance, although I confess I had to look up the spelling of “occipital.”

We learned to stand with “chin up, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, feet together and hands at our side,” directions Fred barked out in rapid fashion.

And that was only preparation for high school health class, when Fred taught us “the 13 steps to sexual intercourse.”

As I wrote earlier, health class with Fred, or Mr. C, as many of us called him, wasn’t simply about sex and drugs. It was about mental health as well as physical health. One of the books (and possibly the only book) we had for health class was “Toward a Psychology of Being” by Abraham Maslow.

I don’t think Mr. C had a degree in psychology, but he was a master of psychology. When one of my classmates surreptitiously “supplied” many of us with Maslow’s book through a window between the library and the atrium, Fred didn’t get angry. He matter-of-factly mentioned that the librarians told him only five or six people had paid for the book, yet he could see that we all had the book. Without reading us the riot act, he motivated all of us to go to the library and pay for the books we already possessed.

I also remember Fred letting us fill out our own report cards (in the pre-computer days of carbon copies). At the time, I thought it was a clever way for him to get us to do his work. Today, I realize it was Fred’s way of getting us to reflect upon our effort and performance in the class.

During my senior year, the varsity basketball coach, who replaced our highly respected previous coach, Jay Levin, resigned a few games into the season. When his replacement didn’t work out very well, our principal, Dr. Steven Lorch, took over as head coach. Dr. Lorch wisely asked Fred to serve as assistant coach, even though his time commitments prevented him from attending practice every day.

Fred wasn’t there for X’s and O’s. He was the assistant coach because he understood people – and that included a group of sometimes head-strong boys who were on their third coach of their senior season.

After an uninspired first half in our league semifinal game, Fred approached me as we exited the locker room. Having missed most of the first half, Fred asked me about the game to figure out what adjustments could be made. But he didn’t ask about shooting or rebounding. All of his questions were about attitude, hustle and effort.

Later that spring, before our basketball team departed for a trip to Israel, Fred, who wasn’t able to accompany us, spoke to me about togetherness and getting along. At the time, I thought it was unnecessary advice. We were all teammates and friends.

After one fight on the street between teammates and one altercation during practice (I was the guilty party in that one), I remember thinking “how could Fred have known?”

His understanding of people and psychology certainly proved beneficial during Fred’s marketing career, which included founding Bulldozer Digital, his latest venture specializing in “digital convergence marketing.”

In March of 2015, at a Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (the renamed Akiba Hebrew Academy) gala event headlined by CNN anchor and Akiba graduate Jake Tapper, a former classmate of mine asked, “Are you going to the Hall of Fame ceremony for Fred Catona?” My answer was that I absolutely planned to go.

We talked about Mr. C for a little while. He was our gym teacher, our health teacher, our coach and our friend. He also offered enthusiastic encouragement and praise when the two of us, despite being good friends, beat the heck out of each other during our match in gym class at the end of our wrestling unit. Bloodied (literally) and bruised, we both received “A’s” and Mr. C’s seal of approval.

At the end of the gala event, all of the alumni gathered on a stage for a group picture. As my friend and I stood toward the side of the stage, up the steps walked Fred Catona. We hugged him and congratulated him on his upcoming induction into the Barrack/Akiba Sports Hall of Fame.

And we were there last June, seated with other friends and other classmates, as Fred was inducted. I’ll always remember how proud Fred was to be honored and how pleased he was that his former students showed up.

In a bit of irony, my friend and I both took circuitous career routes toward a final destination of education.

When my career is over, I hope I can look back and say that I’ve had one-half as much influence on one-tenth as many students as Fred Catona had while he was teaching.

When you reflect on all of Fred’s accomplishments during his remarkable life, it’s obvious now what those of us blessed to have been taught by Mr. C realized long ago.

He was never just a gym teacher.

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4 Responses

  1. Adam Greenberg Says:

    Well said. Mr. C was a good man and a great teacher – though i can’t say I recall all 13 steps… Somewhere I still have an autographed copy of his book. Condolences to all who loved him. You shall indeed be missed. Akiba ’86.

    Posted on June 2nd, 2016 at 8:12 pm

  2. Eric Fisher Says:

    Thank you, Adam. Upon further reflection, it might even be 14 steps.

    Posted on June 3rd, 2016 at 3:40 pm

  3. Josh Alexander Says:

    Wonderful column about a great man. I remember when we were having rope climbing contests during gym class and I was paired up against a much stronger classmate. Mr C asked for a show of hands as to who everyone in the class thought would win. Everyone voted for my classmate (truth be told, I would have voted for him too) but Mr C put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said to everyone else “I think Josh will win”. His confidence inspired me, and I almost broke my legs in a free fall to come down the rope faster just to win it for him and justify his faith in me. He was inspirational, matter-of-fact, and always positive. Rest in Peace, Mr C.

    Posted on June 2nd, 2016 at 8:39 pm

  4. Eric Fisher Says:

    Thanks, Josh. I wish I could say I voted for you, but …

    Posted on June 3rd, 2016 at 3:41 pm

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