A Life Remembered: Peter Gonnella, Committed to Coaching

Jan 7, 2014

Beloved coach Peter Gonnella of Harwich, shown here with his wife, Kerry, and their four children, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 48.
Credit Courtesy photo from family

This May will mark two years since her husband Peter died, and Kerry Gonnella's greatest fear is that he will be forgotten.

"I don't want his memory to fade," she said. "That's what happens. People die, people move on. Which is fine. That's life. But I want people to remember him."

Peter Gonnella was the father of three children. He also was a coach and a teacher. His student-athletes describe him as a charismatic person who inspired them. They say that he cared about them. And that's not something people forget.

"I could never forget him ever," said 18-year-old Erin Minns, one of Gonnella's players. "I still have the newspaper article about his passing up on my wall in my bedroom."

Minns met Gonnella when she was a freshman trying out for the Harwich Girls Basketball team.

"He helped me build my confidence not only in basketball but in life in general," she said. "I was more confident in myself and that made me happier. He just always had a very happy energy about him."

Gonnella himself was a standout basketball player at Wakefield High School, north of Boston, where he grew up. He still holds the school record for most points scored in a quarter, and he was inducted into the high school Hall of Fame there.

"I would read old articles, and I found most of that out after he was gone," Minns said. "And I was very impressed. I think about him every day. He was just a very loving man, and no one could ever forget him."

Pat Tecce is one of Gonnella's childhood friends. After Peter got sick, Tecce made a video that included archival tape of Gonnella lighting up the scoreboard for Wakefield High, as well as interviews with many of Gonnella's former coaches and students.

"If you watch the video," he said, "it shows that a lot of the -- whether they were students or players -- both made note that, 'He made you feel good no matter what.' So he was not only a coach but he was kind of like a father figure."

Gonnella's own basketball career was cut short by a knee injury in college. His first teaching job was in Wakefield, where both Peter and Kerry grew up. The couple moved to Cape Cod in 2002, though Kerry had never been here before. Never even visited.

"I loved it immediately. Loved it," she said. "I fell in love living here. It's a nice place to raise your kids. It's a nice small town. He loved it too."

Gonnella was probably best known as the Harwich varsity girls basketball coach, but he coached all sorts of sports, from tennis to football. But full-time teaching positions are difficult to find on Cape Cod, and it became more and more difficult to patch things together.

"He always wanted to coach his kids," his wife Kerry said. "But what happened was, Peter commuted off Cape for his job. He worked in Everett. He coached in Wakefield for 4 years, and then he was commuting back and forth to Everett. His biggest wish was to coach his children, but he never got to. At least not Francesca. He did coach Cameron."

16-year-old Cameron is Peter's oldest son. He also has a college-aged daughter, Angela; a daughter Francesca, who is 12; and the youngest Joey, who is 10. They miss their father very much. They miss laughing with him.

"We used to have this thing where we did sleep-outs in here," Francesca said from the family's living room. "It would be me and him on the floor, and Cameron on that couch right there, and Joey right here. And we would just stay up really late."

An ornament that read,"Dad: In Our Hearts Forever" topped the Gonnella Christmas tree this season.
Credit Photo by Sean Corcoran

Cameron remembers just how passionate his father was about his teaching job.

"And he just took his gym, phys ed job to the next level," Cameron said. "I know after school he would do this workout thing with some kids. He had the health teacher help with dieting plans. And a lot of kids really liked it. Some kids got stronger. Some lost weight."

"All the years I took gym, no one does that," he said. "He was the only one. In gym class today, we don't, none of the gym teachers say, 'Come after school and I'll help you work out.' And, 'I'll have the health teacher give you dieting plans.' No, he was the only one who did that. He was so passionate, he didn't just do it for the money, he did it to help other people. And that's just awesome."

Gonnella was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2011, after complaining about a sore back. At the time, he was getting up at 4:30 every morning to drive to a teaching job in Everett. Kerry says Peter thought his back was sore because of his commute.

"I remember watching him coach one game, and he wasn't into it," she said. "He just looked tired and worn out. And I remember saying, he is so exhausted from this commute. Look at him, he just isn't into it anymore. But when I look back I realize that he was sick, and he just didn't know it."

Kerry says that throughout his sickness and after he died, she saw a side of Harwich that she never knew. The letters poured in. The food arrived. Testimonials were read and fundraisers were held -- a reminder that people don't forget the teachers and coaches who looked out for them and were kind.

"It was a blessing," she said. "If you can understand that. It's hard to say that being sick is a blessing, but to be able to see, to be able to experience that is a gift."

Peter Gonnella died May 10, 2012.  He was 48 years old.