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Pete Cislo recalled as educator with heart

Educator Pete Cislo, a longtime dean at Ashland High School, is being remembered as a compassionate, can-do community giant who gave warm but firm guidance to scores of wayward students — and created a volunteer program of lawyers, bankers and counselors to help homeowners fight foreclosure in the 2008 economic crash.

Cislo died recently after battling Parkinson’s disease for three years. He was 75. His memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at Mountain Avenue Theater, Ashland High School. A Celebration of Life will follow at 6 p.m. at RoxyAnn Winery, 3283 Hillcrest Road, Medford.

“He was a really dedicated ‘kids first’ kind of guy,” said retired English teacher Bill Gabriel. “Everybody loved Pete. He was a huge part of the community and did so much good. He made you want to be a better person. You could always expect him to tell you the truth. If he said you were messing up, you knew you were messing up. We could all take a page from the Pete Cislo playbook.”

Born in Butte, Montana, and raised around immigrants and working class people, Cislo loved hands-on outdoors work and worked as a carpenter and logger in Southern Oregon. He graduated from Stanislaus State College in Turlock, California, and started teaching high school in Modesto in 1966.

His son Eric Cislo said that when his dad taught in Modesto, he would take detention kids out to his farm and teach them to feed pigs and get their hands on animals.

“He was real creative in his approach to conflict resolution and discipline,” Eric said. “He didn’t do everything by the book. He maneuvered in ways to seek the best outcome for the kids he worked with. He was such a unique individual, and I always have people coming up to me saying, ‘He saved my life.’”

Eric recalled that his dad’s life-defining moment was the death of his father when Pete was 8. Pete was alone with him when it happened. “He had a lightning-bolt experience and realized that, at any time, your life can turn upside down, so I’m going to choose happiness.”

Gabriel said Ashland has lots of smart kids, but Cislo “sought out the other ones.”

Echoing the thought, drama-literature teacher Betsy Bishop said, “He was always looking for the diamond in the rough. You could see the group of marginalized kids, and he would say, ‘How do we get these kids to blossom?’ He believed in young people and wanted them to see the fruits of their labor.

“He was a very intellectual, bright person and focused his efforts to help students get over the hump, always with such a positive attitude and sense of humor. He was very forgiving and would laugh at people’s foibles and give them a hand up. He would always try to get kids to help each other. He did so many wonderful things for our school. I loved Pete. He was a doer with compassion.”

Fellow teacher Kathy Vann noted, “I loved him so much. He gave more to kids than anyone I’ve ever known. He was on my team and supported me in so many ways. He was one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known. There will never be another one like him.”

As a fundraiser, one who would appeal to the community, Cislo created memorial paver stones with a brass plate in the middle of a brick, honoring someone. The idea took off and he eventually created a successful retail business with it, called Leave Your Mark, which markets all over the nation.

He got the idea for his Building Hope movement when out walking the dogs and talking to a neighbor. The woman’s son ran out and tearfully demanded to know why they had to lose their home.

“He came home and said, ‘I’ve got to do something to save these people,’ so he teamed with Rogue Credit Union, family counselors and pro bono lawyers to counsel families about to lose their homes,” said Eric. “It impacted hundreds of families.”

His three-year bout with Parkinson’s was much eased by boxing in the Rock Steady program, said Deborah, and it provided much support and camaraderie with people undergoing the same suffering.

“He was always super positive and saying, ‘Life is grand, isn’t it?’ He had a way of making people feel special and accepted for who they are,” said Deborah. “He could walk in an elevator and, by the time he got out, would know everyone, where they were from and what they were up to. I always called him Mr. Friendly.”

Cislo is survived by his wife, Deborah Cislo, son Eric Cislo, daughter Richelle Miller, stepson Braxton Reed, daughter Rozmond Hale, seven grandsons, one granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.