Former LHS coach, WWII pilot Cleri passes at 96

John D’Onofrio/StaffIn this July 25, 2014, file photo, Lockport wrestling celebrated its 50th anniversary of the program. From left: the high school’s first wrestling coach Bob Ames, then-varsity coach Joe Scappeliti, former LHS gym teacher Vic Cleri and former athletic director Patrick Burke. 

In his many travels, Vic Cleri's impact was felt around the world.

The Lockport sports community lost a historical figure last week, as Cleri passed away at the age of 96. A member of Lockport High School's inaugural athletics hall of fame class in 2008, Cleri was an assistant coach of the football program for six seasons, before taking over the head role from 1955 to 1964.

Cleri also became the Lions' first soccer coach in 1964, served as an assistant track and field coach, and he administered youth swimming programs from 1962 to 1975.

As a player himself, Cleri embodied the "heart over height" mantra. His former players shared how at 5-foot-7, Cleri's toughness always exuded.

A two-sport captain with the Lions basketball team and as a center on the offensive line, Cleri would eventually join the University at Buffalo's football team, making the switch to running back after two seasons in the trenches.

Not only did the Bulls go 21-4-1 during his stint, Cleri started as a defensive back and at tailback during the 1948 season, averaging 9.9 yards per carry. Following that 1948 campaign, he was named to the All-Western New York team — a selection of players comprised from UB, Niagara University, Canisius College and St. Bonaventure.

Before he got to UB, though, Cleri was defending this country in World War II. A Navy fighter pilot station on the escort carrier USS Anzio, Cleri would attend flight, ground and advanced training schools beginning in 1942. Once overseas, he provided air cover for submarines in route to Okinawa, Japan, as he served until the end of the war in 1945.

Cleri saw duty in Korea, Guam and Pearl Harbor, which led to him receiving an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. He would fly for the Navy Reserve Squadron in Niagara Falls as well, before his Naval discharge in 1959.

Cleri's military ties also came back around in 2019, as he was selected as the Honorary Grand Marshall of Lockport's annual Memorial Day parade.

Although he was away for a stretch, Cleri made sure to stay linked to the sports world. While doing his training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cleri played football and boxed.

That love for sports never wavered, as Cleri served as a physical education teacher in the Lockport school district from 1949 to 1981. Splitting his time as a coach, Cleri would play for the original Lockport YMCA's Blue Devils team, which placed in the top four of two national YMCA tournaments, as well as a second-place finish in another in 1950.

Cleri also competed in the Lockport fast pitch softball league for many years.

The loss of Cleri couldn't be more evident of his impact, seeing as his former player Jack DiMaggio posted about his passing on Facebook and got well over 300 reactions, 250-plus comments and 20 shares.

It should come as no surprise, seeing the turnout Cleri garnered for his 96th birthday parade in June 2020, which can be seen on YouTube.

DiMaggio's connection to Cleri spans back to his youth, as the latter taught the former as his first male teacher at the old DeWitt Clinton Elementary School. Not only did he play RB and DB for Cleri in 1958 and 1959, DiMaggio became his colleague once he joined the LHS staff as an art teacher.

"Through the course of those years, he was always my mentor," DiMaggio said. "But then he evolved into becoming a very good friend, up until the last conversation I had with him, which was just the day before he died."

DiMaggio, 78, called their relationship "special," due to the many influences Cleri had on his life. 

After a group of his former players put together a coach Cleri appreciation night at Danny Sheehan's Steak House, they all decided one event wasn't enough. So in 2010, they began what they'd call LWTC — lunch with the coach.

"Once a month every month for 11 years, with the coach ... that was between 12-19 guys that played football for him, until this COVID," DiMaggio said. "We met every single month for the last 11 years. And it was something very special because all of his had that kind of feeling towards this man. I mean we all had our own stories."

DiMaggio was able to reflect on what he believes Cleri's impact was behind his tough-nosed demeanor.

"He was the kind of guy that ... didn't necessarily give a lot of 'atta boy' slaps on the back. Because he basically expected you to do what you were supposed to do," DiMaggio said.

"But then he also had a way of letting you know when you did do what you were supposed to do, he let you know in his own way, which was a very quiet way. He was an inspiration because, No. 1 he was one hell of a confident — but very, very laid back — kind of a guy. He had a look about him that when he was not happy that you respected.

DiMaggio continued: " ... He was diligent in what he did and how he performed his coaching duties. He was direct. He was the kind of guy you just immediately respected. He had a tremendous way about him, that you just respected this man, even though some of us did not know the history of his athletic career. But once you started to learn that, you could see how this man being the athlete that he was really carried that through the rest of his life."

Cleri's "never say die" attitude and push "to always give it your all" inspired DiMaggio and others to keep involved in the world of sports.

DiMaggio would get into coaching at LHS, and another one of Cleri's former players, Tom Hicks, would go on to fight for the world light heavyweight championship before serving as the principal of Newfane Elementary School. Jim Conley — a Section VI hall of famer who served as a football and baseball coach at Newfane, as well as athletic director — also played under Cleri and has said how influential the coach was on his path to UB, teaching and beyond.

Chuck Secord is one of Cleri's former quarterbacks and he recalls a special opportunity coach provided for him. After two years at DeSales High School, Secord transferred to LHS in order to prep for an apprenticeship in woodworking.

Watching the Lions play Trott in the 1958 season opener, Secord got the itch to get on the field. Once he reached out, Cleri was more than happy to bring him on, letting Secord know he must hit the required practice days before playing any games.

After starting out as a 160-pound defensive end, Secord was delighted to switch to QB. He'll never forget Cleri giving him "a second chance to play."

"I got pretty close to him. He was just a great guy. A little, tough guy," Secord said. "He played at the University at Buffalo at about 160 pounds."

Secord was thankful to keep in touch with him, especially with the LWTC crew. And the thing that always stood out was how sharp Cleri was, even at 90-plus years of age.

"We'd be talking about a game against Trott or LaSalle or whoever, Niagara Falls," Secord said. "And we'd say what the score was, and he'd correct us, and he was always right. He knew the scores better than we did. When a person is that old, and they're sharp, it's amazing."

Other members of the Lockport athletics community also chimed in. Former varsity football coach Greg Bronson — also Secord' son in-law and a former Lions QB from the 1980s — remembers the coach from taking part in his Phys Ed classes during high school. Playing for LHS and coaching there, Bronson is well aware of the figure that Cleri was.

"He certainly was a unique character and a big part of our football history here," Bronson said.

Although Cleri never coached under former Lockport AD Pat Burke, he shared his experiences from meeting Cleri.

"He was basically a legend in town. He was one of the sweetest gentleman you'll ever want to meet," Burke said.

" ... A guy that just oozed class all the time. When they use the term 'a gentleman's gentleman,' he was like that. He always approached you, he always wanted to talk and he seemed like you were always the most important thing at the time when you talked to him. You've met people where you know they're thinking about something else when you're talking to them. You're sitting there saying 'this guy isn't hearing anything I'm saying or paying attention.' That wasn't coach Cleri.

Burke added: " ... One of the old adages they say in coaching is it's not what you say; what the players remember is how that coach made you feel. He made you feel important all the time."

Follow sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, be sure to listen to the GNN Sports Podcast, on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and more.

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