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Dominic M. Cermele, former president of Girard College, and traffic court judge, dies at 80

Fun-loving and active, he carried the Olympic torch through Philadelphia before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and often dressed as Christopher Columbus at Italian-American events.

Judge Cermele talks with Judy Daniels in 2001 after her house on West Thompson Street was rehabilitated as part of the Girard College housing initiative.
Judge Cermele talks with Judy Daniels in 2001 after her house on West Thompson Street was rehabilitated as part of the Girard College housing initiative.Read moreCHARLES FOX / INQ FOX

Dominic M. Cermele, 80, former president of Girard College, a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge, and longtime city administrator, died Thursday, Nov. 11, of renal failure at his home in South Philadelphia.

For nearly eight decades, Judge Cermele was part of Girard College, the five-day-a-week boarding school on Ridge Avenue. A lifetime booster, he was a student there for 11 years, the head of its alumni association for two years, on its board of directors for 12 years, and president from 2003 to 2009.

“This is a labor of love for me,” Judge Cermele told The Inquirer in 2008. “I have had many different careers, but [president of Girard] is the best.”

Before Girard, Judge Cermele worked for Philadelphia as first deputy chief clerk of Traffic Court, Traffic Court judge, deputy finance director, chief of the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication, and executive director of the Office of Administrative Review.

As Girard’s president, he increased the school’s enrollment from 590 to 753, expanded funding and family services, developed day-camp programs, modernized facilities, and helped found and was chair of the school’s board of managers.

“We believe the way we ‘save children’ nowadays is through a rigorous educational program,” Judge Cermele told The Inquirer in 2008.

He won the alumni association’s 1990 Award of Merit, and the 1999 Stephen Girard Award for dedication to the school. He also created the Pat and Rita Cermele Award, named for his parents, for distinguished service by Girard staff, and the Donna Cermele Cacia Memorial Fund to commemorate his daughter who had died.

“His leadership, generosity, and dedication were always focused on creating opportunities for Girard students,” school officials wrote in an online tribute.

Using his wit, gregarious manner, and penchant for telling stories, Judge Cermele forged strong connections with his students. He walked the halls, knew their names, and offered commonsense solutions to their problems. He dressed as Santa Claus at Christmas, and many younger students called him “Pop-pop.”

The City Council of Philadelphia recognized him for “exemplifying the highest ideals of civic duty,” and Delaware Valley University awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 2019 for his work “to serve those in need — the at-risk members of his community.”

Judge Cermele was born in South Philadelphia on Oct. 27, 1941. His father died when he was 5, and his mother enrolled him at Girard College for second grade. He graduated in 1959.

He attended the Augustinian Academy in New York briefly, then found work at a drug store, as an orderly at Pennsylvania Hospital, and as an investigator for the public defender’s office in Philadelphia. He met Barbara Briglia at a New Year’s Eve party, and they married in 1965.

He was elected a Traffic Court judge in 1981, and served two terms until 1989, when he left to work in the city’s finance department. Of all the excuses from parking-ticket offenders he heard as a judge, “The one I like best is the ‘emergency bathroom’ issue,” he told The Inquirer in 1989.

Judge Cermele was accused by a former city employee of being involved in a 1985 ticket-fixing scandal at Traffic Court. He was not prosecuted in the federal probe or publicly sanctioned, and he denied involvement. More than a dozen people admitted guilt, and several went to jail.

Judge Cermele had a heart attack when he was 42, and suffered from diabetes and kidney disease for years. But he watched his diet, exercised, and became a model patient. He liked to read history books, sing, tell jokes, and be the life of the party.

“He was approachable,” said his daughter Holly Verrichia. “People would walk up to him and say, ‘Hi Pop-pop.’”

He was on the board of directors of City Trusts, Wills Eye Hospital, and Citizens Acting Together Can Help (CATCH), and a member of the Men of Malvern charity group.

“He was a wonderful person,” said his wife. “We just fit together so well.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Judge Cermele is survived by sons Rick and Bill, six grandchildren, one great-grandson, a sister, and other relatives. A sister died earlier.

Services were Nov. 20.

Donations in his name may be made to Citizens Acting Together Can Help, 1409 Lombard St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19146.