Pep Perrella's Recipes and Smiles Touched Many
Popular figure in the Catholic diocese died of cancer.
Several hundred friends, teammates, players and relatives packed the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on Saturday to say goodbye to Thomas “Pep” Perrella. A contributor to the city’s soccer renaissance in the 1970s and a chef who cooked for generations of Catholic school students, he passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 59 on Sept. 25.
The crowd was reminiscent of the more than 1,200 people who attended a benefit for his daughters Gabrielle and Ivy at Archbishop Curley High School last February after he was diagnosed.
It's no wonder so many turned out. Perrella made everyone he met feel special.
“He didn’t care if you were the bread delivery man, a window washer, a janitor, or the archbishop, he treated you the same way,” said his sister Ruth Barker.
Barker told a story about a cashier at Sam’s Club. Pep asked if she was taking a summer vacation and she said "no" because her husband had lost his job. Pep insisted that she take his beach house for a week.
“She was incredulous,” said Barker. “He wouldn’t take 'no' for answer.”
There were many stories of his service to friends, family and strangers.
A friend’s father was on his deathbed and the family was keeping a round-the-clock vigil for four days. One morning, Pep showed up with sandwiches and coffee.
“He touched, affected, and changed the lives of many people,” said Father Joe Benicewicz, president of Archbishop Curley, who delivered the homily. “His Curley players never talked about the three championships he won, only that they had him as coach. The rest was gravy.”
During his illness he kept telling Father Joe, “I am blessed.” His diagnosis last February only reinforced his faith. He remained upbeat about what God had in store for him.
The children also helped out with wall-sized get-well cards and staged boycotts of chicken fingers from anywhere else until he returned.
“He is loved and will be missed by all the children and faculty. We could count on him to give us the best of his recipes, time and smiles. He did all of our extra events,” said Sister Josephann Wagoner, principal of Cathedral School.
Growing up on the east side in the parish of the Shrine of the Little Flower, Perrella received the nickname “Pep” from a little league baseball coach who saw a resemblance to the legendary St. Louis Cardinal Pepper Martin in the 8-year-old's playing style.
“[Martin] was a hard-nosed base stealer, a tenacious player, and a member of championship teams,” said Father Benicewicz. “Pep’s mother said not to call him that because it would stick, and it did.”
Pep played on and coached championship soccer teams. He knew how to manage a kitchen crew, too.
With an accounting degree from Loyola College and a strong attraction to cooking, he ran the kitchens at many of the area’s parochial schools including Cathedral, Immaculate Conception, St. Francis of Assisi, Archbishop Curley, Catholic High and Shrine of the Little Flower.
He opened Pepper’s restaurant in the 1980s across from Little Flower. When the school cafeteria was having problems, Pep took over the food concession. His restaurant closed shortly thereafter and he started a catering business servicing catholic schools, bull roasts, retirement parties, tournaments and events.
Pep’s classic lunch fare included chicken parmigiana, meatball subs, lasagna, pizza and sloppy Joes.
“Mr. Pep was a great gym teacher ... but his meatball subs were even better,” said playwright Sofia Alvarez, who graduated from St. Francis of Assisi.
The lunches were legendary with Pep taking an interest in the children. They were not just asking their parents for “lunch money,” they wanted funds for a “Mr. Pep lunch.” It was something special they looked forward to.
“The parents would come in and say, ‘I never had food like this in school,’” said Bonnie Klado, head of the Cathedral kitchen. "We serve baked chicken, stir fry, and chicken fingers.”
Pep loved coming to work and being with the children.
“This is the best way to make a living,” he would say to Bonnie. “I’m very sad that he won’t get to see his grandchildren,” she said.
She worked the event at Curley in February and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“I’d carry trays of food out in tears because I just couldn’t believe how one man could have touched so many people,” she said. “Every day he would say to me, ‘Have I told you how much I love you today?’ I’m going to miss hearing that,” she said.
Pep would sing Italian songs while he cooked.
“I don’t know which ones,” she said. “He made them up. Whatever sounded good.”
Perrella scored the winning goal for his 1968 Archbishop Curley team that won its first Maryland State Athletic Association (MSAA) championship. He attended Loyola College and played midfield on its only undefeated team in 1973. He won the MSAA title as a coach for Curley three times and has been inducted into the Maryland soccer hall of fame.
“After a practice or a tough game, Pep always told his players, 'I love you guys,'” said Father Benicewicz. “He meant all the players from the first to the last man on the team.”
Perrella got the concept of “inclusion” as Paul McMullen wrote for the Catholic Review in his blog last February about a player Pep sent in for a penalty kick in his last game and who had never attempted a shot on goal in his career.
Perrella and the kids he grew up with in East Baltimore played for their neighborhoods in a Patterson Park league growing up. Then they went to Calvert Hall, Curley or Patterson High to play soccer. Loyola coach Jimmy Bullington recruited Baltimore children like Pep and his grammar school friends to play college soccer. The University of Baltimore and UMBC did the same.
“When the University of Baltimore played Loyola College in the 1970s it was like a boxing match,” said former Loyola Athletic Director Kevin Kavanaugh. “Every kid on the pitch was from Baltimore. It was the heyday for college soccer in this town.”
It was a heated rivalry with neighborhood pride at stake.
“He was always very upbeat and those kids were like a band of brothers,” he said. “They took care of each other. It was pretty neat. The soccer community is very tight knit. It’s why I love Baltimore. It couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
Kavanaugh saw Pep over the years at bull roasts and retirement parties.
Sometimes Pep had to cut it short because he had food in the oven.
“Every time you saw him, he made you feel good,” said Kavanaugh.