By Pete Kennedy
Sept. 11, 1989, was an important day for Mike Cerruti. It was his first day at the police academy — the start of a three-decade career that has led him to his position as a sergeant in Philadelphia’s 15th District.
It was also the day he joined the Sons of Italy.
“All the ethnic fraternal groups had tables set up, almost like at college today for the different clubs,” he said. “I joined on the spot.”
Cerruti, 53, is now president of the Grand Lodge of PA Order Sons and Daughters of Italy (OSDI). He was elected in June to a two-year term to lead the statewide lodge, comprising about 73 local lodges with 5,100 active members and another 13,000 social members.
A second-generation Italian American on his father’s side, Cerruti grew up the oldest of four brothers in a predominantly Italian-American section of Holmesburg in Northeast Philadelphia.
“Unfortunately, speaking Italian was frowned upon,” he said. “My grandfather told me, in order to get work, you had to speak English.”
He went to St. Dominic School and then Archbishop Ryan High School. A few years after graduating, he applied to the police academy.
“I took the test because all my buddies took the test,” he said. “I think at the time, my father may have been out of work. Originally I took the job and was only going to stay on to help the family. Thirty years later, here I am.”
His first beat was around Temple University, then he was transferred to the Lawncrest section of the Northeast. In 1999, he was promoted to sergeant in the East Division — a section of the city regarded at the time as a heroin capital of the nation.
He transferred again to the Avenue of the Arts in South Philadelphia for four years, before finally returning to the Northeast, where he has worked for 14 years in the 15th district.
He sympathizes with rookies starting out today.
“When I first joined, a shooting had maybe one person. These young officers, 22 years of age, are arriving on scenes with three, four, five people shot at one time, and they have to process the steps to be taken,” he said. “They do it, but how do you come down from that? That’s one of the challenges.”
Cerruti was instrumental in creating Michael the Archangel Ministry, through which Rev. Steve Wetzel ministers to 14,000 active and retired police officers. The ministry allowed Wetzel, a Philadelphia native, to remain in the city when his parish, St. Joachim, was shuttered in 2013.
Ever since the academy, Cerruti’s law enforcement career has been closely tied to his OSDI membership. The lodge he joined that first day was Custodios PathosLodge 2085 — which translates to Guardians of the Peace.
“We’re the only one in the state comprised of about 90% of our members being police, firefighters, first-responders and assistant district attorneys,” he said.
The lodge runs about 10 events a year, and Cerruti said it’s always trying out new ideas.
“We’ve had wiffle ball tournaments, bag toss competitions, cigar nights,” he said. “When people come out and see the unity and fraternity of it, it’s something they want to join.”
In his role as state lodge president, Cerruti is hoping to grow the organization’s ranks, as well as connect with other Italian heritage groups. He wants to make better use of technology to encourage young people to come to OSDI events.
“A lot of younger members just don’t have as much spare time as we did,” he said.
The grand lodge is also rolling out a mentorship program for younger members to learn professional skills and trades from more established members.
Cerruti gives much credit to his own mentor, retired municipal court Judge Robert Blasi, a member of the Greater Roxborough lodge.
“He’s a fantastic guy. He listens to your ideas and shows you a way to accomplish them,” Cerruti said. “He’s in his 80s, and the grand lodge is so important to him.”
Cerruti said he is proud of the charitable nature of the Italian-American community, and its long history of perseverance in the face of discrimination.
His term as state lodge president runs through June 2021. He is eyeing retirement from the Philadelphia Police a few years later.
Cerruti lives in northeast Philadelphia with his wife of 35 years, Suzanne. They have three grown children — Domenico, a recent Bloomsburg University graduate, Julianne, who is studying to be a dietician through the University of Arizona, and Theresa, a freshman athlete at Immaculata University, who is following in her mother’s footsteps in studying special education.
When he leaves the police department, he expects he’ll spend more time watching his daughter and other family members compete in sports. He also plans to devote more hours to his garden.
“Every Italian is a gardener,” he said. “Every Italian grows the best tomato.”