Assessing Gretchen Cammiso’s level of devotion to Bristol Township right now — or, to be absolutely accurate, assessing it on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 11, not even 48 hours after the winningest football season in the history of Harry S Truman High School came to a heart-jolting, gut-wrenching, tear-soaked end at Downingtown West in the District One quarterfinals — you would never believe for a second that there ever was a second that she wasn’t all in.
You’d never believe she ever felt overwhelmed by the demands of her job, coaching, training and mentoring students and athletes in a vibrant, diverse, and yes, challenging Lower Bucks County school community. Because Gretchen Cammiso circa 2018 is about as immersed in Truman culture as a non-Truman grad (she went to Pennsbury) who’s only been on the planet 38 years, and working for BTSD for less than 15, can possibly be.
Her heart is so tied to the Tigers that students call her “Mom,” and she has, in fact, become a bona fide foster parent to current and former athletes who needed a home. She’s so proud of what the football team was able to accomplish this fall, going 10-2 and winning the school’s first playoff game under coaches Mike LaPalombara and Galen Snyder, who were hired in 2017, Cammiso’s second year as athletic director, that she gets choked up discussing it.
But Gretchen Cammiso circa 2015 did up and move to California, taking a yearlong leave of absence from her job as a Truman physical education teacher/varsity softball coach/department chairperson/senior class advisor/big sister/mother figure/you get the picture…
“I was doing a lot at the school,” Cammiso recalls. “My sister was in New York, and she had a job where she could kind of live anywhere, and she was home over Easter, and she was like, ‘I’m moving to California,’ and I was like, ‘OK, I’ve lived in Pennsylvania my entire life. I’m going with you.’ I started applying to jobs in California and got a job in a charter school, and we drove cross-country. It was really cool, but it was sad, because I had really great kids at Truman that I had built really strong connections with.
“…And so I went out there and taught at a charter school for like five weeks, and I hated it. I hated it. It was poorly run. It was new, disorganized, and I couldn’t function in that environment, and for the previous 10-to-12 years, I had never woken up and thought that I didn’t want to go to work.”
As if that didn’t make Cammiso homesick enough for Levittown, PA, her next job in California was at a middle school in Cupertino, in the shadow of Apple Headquarters.
“It was the easiest teaching job I’ve had in my entire life,” she says. “The kids were all either, their parents were involved in Apple or Google, or they were lawyers and doctors. They were middle school kids, but they were extremely motivated. If they got an A-minus, it was like, ‘What do I need to do? What do I need to do?’ They did everything you told them to, every second of every day. They were there, they were on time, they were driven, and I was so bored. I didn’t feel like I had a purpose.
“I missed the challenge that Truman gave me. There were kids that needed me, and I felt that every day, I walked in knowing that every day held the opportunity to possibly change the course of someone’s life.
“So I was like, ‘All right. I’m coming back.’ ”
Cammiso gravitates toward kids who pose a challenge for their teachers, because she was one of those kids.
Her inspiration for becoming a phys. ed. teacher was Pennsbury institution Donna Nicholson, but Cammiso was by no means one of Nicholson’s pets from the get-go.
“She hated me at first,” Cammiso says with a laugh. “I couldn’t get to class on time. We would be talking when we weren’t supposed to talk. She would kick me out of dodgeball for, like, throwing too hard…
(Pause in the interview for Jen to lose it laughing, because that is literally my life. I mean, except that it didn’t end in high school. It is ongoing…the talking too much and throwing too hard and the rubbing people the wrong way as a result…Hahahaha. OK, back to business.)
“I was like, ‘This lady hates me,’ ” Cammiso says. “And then slowly, I kind of realized that it was more of a tough-love type thing, that she was just more hard on me. And by the end of the year, I was in her office with my feet on her desk, and I was like, ‘This is just fun. It’s making a difference. You’re making connections.’ And I just really enjoyed it, and knew I wanted to be a phys. ed. teacher from that point on, and I never thought about it again.”
Of course, true to form, Cammiso messed around a little bit in her first year at West Chester University. She played on the varsity softball team, but also had her share of fun off the field. She eventually got her stuff together and graduated in 4 1/2 years, not only with a degree in Health and Physical Education, but also as a Fitness Specialist. In addition to a passion for teaching, Cammiso understood the importance of strength and conditioning, not just in helping a young person perform athletically, but to help them build confidence and self-esteem.
That led to an internship at Newtown Athletic Club, which led to a job at Transcend Fitness, which led to experience as a strength and conditioning trainer for the football team at Council Rock North, which laid the groundwork for programs she would eventually run at Truman, with boys and girls working alongside each other in the weight room, once she got her foot in the door.
Cammiso’s first actual teaching job out of college was as a long-term substitute at Neshaminy. She accepted a full contract at Truman in 2004, at age 24, and she laughs when she remembers her hard-nosed approach to the job back then.
“As a young female teaching high school phys. ed., and the demographics…some of the kids are a little bit rougher around the edges,” she says. “I have kids that now come back, and now they’re like 30-something and they’re friends of mine. They’re like, ‘I see you interact with the kids now, and you’re so cool and nice with them. When we had you, we thought you were in the military or in the Army!’
“One of my phys. ed. intructors at West Chester said, ‘You can start off mean and hard and stand your ground, and you can always loosen the reins, but once they’re loose, you can never pull back.’ So it was always, start off firm and strong, and then once they show they can handle it, you can kind of give them more freedom, but you can never go the opposite direction. I knew I had to set a tone.
“I remember when I walked in there and the phys. ed. guys were taking bets: ‘How long before she cries?’ Because I guess they had females prior who were like, ‘These kids are mean!’ I was like, ‘I’m not gonna cry.’ I just definitely kept up a wall. I came in, I did my job, and I left.”
So, in a way, Cammiso was following in the tough-loving footsteps of her own teaching idol, Donna Nicholson. She hasn’t loosened up in the past 15 years, as much as she’s broken down her wall and really gotten to work.
She was in Utah, driving back from her yearlong sabbatical in California, and not even halfway to her destination, when Cammiso decided to take the next big step in her career.
The athletic director job at Truman had opened up, and she was applying, and interviewing, from afar, over the phone. The district, as she recalls, had downgraded the AD salary, and she would have made more money by just coming back to the teaching job they were holding for her, but Cammiso saw a leadership position in athletics as the best way to really make a difference in the lives of the kids she loved.
“I knew in our area how important athletics and activities are,” she says. “It’s what will make our kids come to school. It gives them someone else to connect to. It gives them a family, because some of them don’t have that. So I was like, I know it’s a pay cut, but I think I can be good at this, so I took the job.”
What was her mission, in this job?
“To raise the bar,” she says.” “We had had some coaches and people who were kind of OK with Truman just being there, just another team on the schedule, status quo. We knew what our pecking order was and we just kind of stayed there. And I wasn’t OK with that. I knew that we had some extremely gifted athletes that were raw because they don’t have the access to year-round conditioning, they don’t have the access to a hitting coach, a strength and conditioning coach, some of the other things that other kids have. They don’t have someone telling them how important grades are to the whole process. …Maybe sometimes, they had parents there, but they didn’t even know the college process. Because for some kids, if they go to college, they’re the very first person to go to college in their family. So they don’t know. They just don’t know. A lot of kids fell through the cracks.
“And sometimes, you have to coax them [into sports]. You see a kid in gym class, and you’re like, ‘Why are you not playing a sport?’ Plucking kids and being like, ‘You have talent, so let’s get you out there. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you that before.’ So just taking it on, making it more personal. As an AD, a lot is scheduling and transportation and officials and that kind of stuff, but you have to embrace the idea that for a lot of these kids, for them, the school is their home, so how do I get them to tap into all of the potential that they have?”
Toward that end, Cammiso, who doesn’t have children of her own, has opened her home, and her wallet, for Truman athletes and their relatives going through difficult times. To her, that kind of above-and-beyond care is almost part of the job description.
“The kids and the coaches really do become my family,” she says. “I just want to continue to provide these kids with the best opportunity that they can have. Because a lot of them don’t have the means or access to additional resources on their own. I’m trying to make sure we have the stuff in place within our school to give them more support, because for some of them, this is the only place they have to go.
“The people I bring in to the athletic department don’t look at it as just a job. All of them have that same view of, ‘These are my kids.’ That’s what I want to continue to build. This is an opportunity to possibly alter the course of where a life may go.”
The 2018 Truman football team certainly altered the course of where the program is going. In fact, after winning the Suburban One League National Conference title and the program’s first District One playoff game on Nov. 2 against Council Rock South, the Tigers led Downingtown West all the way to the wire in the ensuing quarterfinal game, before falling 24-22 on a late field goal.
After many years of struggling, as an athletic department, to compete against neighboring schools, and struggling to rise up from under that “also-ran” reputation, the historic football run stoked a bonfire of school and community pride that left burning embers to build on in coming years.
Cammiso can’t wait to see — or, get busy working on — what happens next.
“The kids don’t realize yet how much has happened over the past couple of years, and this playoff run and all that stuff, all those things, those intangibles that they picked up along the way from it, these are things that, some of them will be fundamentally changed,” Cammiso says. “Some of these kids who maybe felt that they didn’t have the support of anyone, to now have an entire school cheering them on. Other kids in the school coming up that maybe were like, ‘Welp, I’m going to go to Truman and play football,’ or, ‘I’m going to go and play whatever sport,’ like the freshmen who saw it and the eighth graders that we brought to the stadium, all those things help to build the kind of tradition that a Pennsbury or Neshaminy have already, an ongoing following. Kids will look forward to coming here.
“Our football players knew they were good, but it’s so cool to see it reinforced by people other than the coaches. We have a very diverse team, and especially in today’s day and age, where there seems to be so much more division, and in some instances we’ve gone back in time, to have our kids of different racial makeups, different religions, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and they all just get along together…which is why I love Truman. We’re so diverse, and the kids don’t give a [bleep] at all. They don’t care what you’re into, who you like. That’s you. Cool. It’s refreshing. I don’t watch the news, but at least where I’m at in my bubble, I feel like people are OK.”
The Truman community is better than “OK,” and Cammiso has always known that, and that’s why she has invested her heart and soul in helping that community succeed. It’s why she couldn’t stay in California, where she felt her “edge” and her passion was going to waste, and she decided to come back and go all in on Truman’s future.
Clearly, based on the results achieved on her watch, it was the right decision.
It still is.
“I think that we have a lot of potential. I really do,” Cammiso says. “I want kids to be excited about coming to Truman, and I want kids to stay in Bristol Township.
“We have a great school. We have great kids. We have great academics. We have really great athletic teams. It’s just that it takes a little bit more to keep reassuring the kids that yes, it is all here for you. It is all within you to be just as successful as anybody else.”
Thank you to Truman AD Gretchen Cammiso for taking the time to share her story with me, and for patiently waiting for me to get it written. If you know someone who would be a good subject for a Coffee Conversation, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.