By Anna O'Sullivan
When John Cerrato '76, DMD, then 16, was serving as an orderly at Westchester Square Hospital, he watched a two-and-a-half-year old die in his arms, which was a serious blow to his thoughts of becoming a physician like his father and great uncle. Despite this traumatic experience, today, Cerrato is a top dentist in his field.
Born into an Italian immigrant family, Cerrato was raised in the Bronx and in Pelham Manor and attended Mount St. Michael Academy. After high school, in 1965, he enrolled at New York University and majored in biology. Upon graduation, Cerrato decided to enter the teaching field, but after four years it lost its luster, and he spent the next year as a sales representative for Pfizer.
Still not satisfied with his career choice, he began to consider his options. Cerrato was always very artistic, sculpting and painting like his Italian great grandfather, which prompted him to think about how he could incorporate his talents into a career. He then spoke to a few friends who were dentists and realized that dentistry may be a good choice—he enjoyed working with his hands and wouldn't have to deal with people dying.
Knowing that he needed some additional coursework in order to apply to dental schools, he was in search of way to launch his new career. Part of his Pfizer sales territory was Morningside Heights, and after seeing a New York Times ad for the School of General Studies, Cerrato decided to make a stop.
"I came into the office in a three-piece suit, and was like, 'Here I am.' So Sylvia Bassoff, who was an academic advisor—and was a little old lady sitting in a chair, a wheelchair, if I remember correctly—starts sizing me up. She then gets up on her elbows, leans across the table, and with her little, boney finger with long nail pokes me in the chest and said, 'Does it burn? Does it burn in here? Now, if it doesn't burn, don't come back. Get out of here.'"
Cerrato was stunned, and he went home to think what Bassoff had said.
A few days later, he came back to the office, and said, "Sylvia, it burns." And she said, "Okay, then get out of here and go fill out the forms. And that was the start of it," Cerrato said.
Cerrato spent the next two years commuting from Westchester completing his prerequisites for dental school through the Postbac Premed Program, which he describes as his proving grounds.
"I had an organic chemistry professor who told our class that only five of us would receive A’s. On the final, he gave us a 20-point question that would decide my grade. I sat there for a half hour, and then finally I got it. And so I was one of the five people. That's when I realized I really had a shot," Cerrato said.
After completing the Postbac Premed Program in 1976, Cerrato was offered a spot in the University of Pennsylvania MD-PhD Program, but stuck with his original plan of pursuing dentistry and spent the next four years at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine while balancing his studies with his family obligations. He went on to complete a one-year general practice residency at Booth Memorial Hospital in Queens, NY, before joining his current Garden City, NY, practice with Ernest Pelloni, Sr., DDS.
Thirty years later, Cerrato, who has served as Nassau County Peer Review Committee chairman, on the Nassau County Dental Society board of directors and executive board for 25 years, the New York State Peer Review for Dentistry, and is a former Nassau County Dental Society president, said that maintaining balance is his greatest success.
"I attribute a lot of my success to Dr. L.D. Pankey, a controversial yet increasingly influential voice of dentistry. His philosophy focused on the cross of life—yourcommunity, your practice, your family, and your religion, and the necessity to remain centered. With that in mind, I've always tried to maintain balance—evening meals with my family, attending everything my children ever did in school as well as coaching them in sports while still dedicated to my profession, religion, and community," Cerrato said.
Cerrato's dedication to his community now extends to School of General Studies alumni. After being invited to attend the GS Scholarship Reception in 2010, shortly after his eldest son died, Cerrato was seated next to Albert J. Blaylock who started a memorial scholarship for his own son, Clayton, who passed away during his last semester at GS.
Cerrato's interaction with Blaylock motivated him to not only create scholarship funds at his son's alma maters, both college and high school, but also to serving the School of General Studies.
Today, Cerrato serves on the GS Annual Fund Leadership Committee as a representative of the Postbac Premed Program, and is excited to support both Postbac students and alumni in whatever way he can.