Ernie Casciato, who taught at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie from 1976 to 2016, was known across the Portland theater scene for his talent and his concern for others. (Sentinel archives)
Ernie Casciato, who taught at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie from 1976 to 2016, was known across the Portland theater scene for his talent and his concern for others. (Sentinel archives)
It’s the personal attention students receive — sprinkled with joy, faith and intelligence — that marks Catholic schools at their best.

For Sarah Hunt, a graduate of La Salle Catholic College Preparatory and actress on Broadway and in television, that personal attention came in the robust form of the late Ernie Casciato, English, speech, and drama teacher at La Salle for nearly 40 years.

Hunt, now in Los Angeles at the finale of a multicity tour playing Belle in the Broadway revision of “A Christmas Carol,” shared her gratitude for Casciato with the LA Downtown News.

“Like the Cratchit family’s happily ever after that comes from Scrooge’s generosity, Hunt’s career took off thanks to a simple moment of goodwill from her high school theater teacher in the small Portland, Oregon, suburb of Milwaukie,” the Los Angeles journalist wrote.

Hunt recalled Casciato handing her a flyer for auditions for the first national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening.” He told her that she wouldn’t embarrass herself if she auditioned for it.

She skipped school to audition, got the part and launched her career.

“He was a great teacher,” Hunt told the Catholic Sentinel, adding that few people take the time to really help young people hear themselves and see themselves.

Hunt said that an important part of what she received from La Salle is embodied in the school’s mission statement for students: Enter to learn, leave to serve.

She went on to attend and graduate from Juilliard, where the message to students is the artist as citizen.

“The mission of both schools is the other-mindedness, your service toward others,” said Hunt. “That you fit into a bigger picture, that you’re part of a whole.”

That message, she said, allows actors to do the hard work of entering into the characters they play without judgment, in the process revealing parts of themselves to their audiences.

“That’s why theater can be so healing,” she said. “Because audiences can see themselves in others, and also feel part of that bigger picture.”

Hunt made her Broadway debut in in 2014, acted in television roles in Los Angeles — including in TNT’s “Animal Kingdom,” and returned to Broadway in 2019 as a lead in “A Christmas Carol,” a version written by Jack Thorne,

“Sarah had the gift within her, and Ernie gave her the shot,” said Hunt’s mother, Mari Hunt. “What LaSalle offered was having one of the best drama coaches in Portland. And one of the most beautiful things about Ernie was that he gave the kids — who were definitely sheltered — insight to the real world. Ernie was a brilliant director and drama coach.”

Anyone who knew Casciato knew he cared about his students. He saw Hunt in “Spring Awakening” and he remained in touch, with Hunt certain of his active support.

“I was able many times to say thank you for seeing me before I could see myself and for giving me the confidence to trust myself,” she told the LA publication. “And it wasn’t just career based. It’s about self. He taught me a lot about myself.”

When Casciato died at 67 this summer, the Portland-area arts scene and La Salle Prep alumni grieved.

Bob Hicks, a senior editor of Oregon ArtsWatch Weekly wrote, “Ernie Casciato, the beloved Portland actor and possibly even more beloved teacher,” was “a citizen-artist in the most devoted and inspiring sense.”

“Ernie had a huge heart and made people feel loved. Simple as that,’” one former student wrote Hicks. “That is a gift he gave without limit.”

Another former student wrote: “He made every one of us feel seen.”

Hicks described Casciato as “defiantly dancerly, a man of girth and grace who had the deftest of comic timing.”

La Salle posted its own tribute to Casciato, a graduate of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland (1968), La Salle (1972) and the University of Portland (1976).

Casciato returned to La Salle after college to begin teaching year in and year out until 2016, when he transitioned to teaching drama part time at St. Therese School in Northeast Portland. He also performed in dozens of productions in the Portland metro area.

At La Salle, Casciato could often be heard singing in the classroom, halls and meeting rooms.

“Affectionately known as ‘Mr. C.,’ Ernie created a theater program at La Salle unparalleled in the state,” read the La Salle tribute. “He had a knack for finding just the right cast and crew to make each production greater than the sum of its parts. He instilled a sense of dedication, competence, and wit in all of his performers, leveraging his humor, knowledge, skill, and love to make theater meaningful and impactful for all involved, including the audience.”

Hunt, taught by an especially renowned teacher, now stands alongside Casciato as an artist.

She’s one of countless graduates of Catholic high schools who have found their footing in their school’s drama programs — which are undervalued in their quality and importance, she said.

“For all the wonderful work Ernie did onstage, I know he considered teaching the most important part of his career,” Hicks told the Catholic Sentinel. “Theater and other arts are vital in schools because they teach students how to connect ideas and be flexible in their thinking, wherever their lives may lead. At a time when kids can be locked inside their own heads, theater puts them in other peoples’ shoes and encourages empathy and compassion.”

Hicks also gave high schools credit for being “that essential first place where actors and directors and designers and techies learn how it’s done” — and for being a shelter for students who don’t seem to easily fit in elsewhere.

“Talk to most any theater professional and you’ll hear a story about a great teacher,” Hicks said. “That’s what Ernie was: someone who taught the skills, but more importantly, someone who taught the students.” Just ask Sarah Hunt.