There’s a photo taken of Jim Cerra from 2016. He’s standing with two officials from HospiceCare and the Charleston Building Trades, delivering a check and grinning broadly.
That’s how Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades, remembers Cerra, a longtime construction industry giant: Friendly and passionate about his work, with a handshake that would crush you.
“If you’re going to shake his hand, you’d better get ready,” White said Friday. “He would definitely test you.”
Cerra, a giant in the construction industry, former head of the Kanawha Valley Builders Association and original member of the State School Building Authority, died last Saturday.
Cerra, who helped fundraise for Charleston Hospice, died under their care, said Luther Lasure, current executive director of the Kanawha Valley Builders Association.
Friday, Cerra’s colleagues remembered him as a leader in the world of construction.
“He was a stalwart, he was a pillar of the industry,” White said.
Cerra grew up in the Wheeling area, where his brother, Tom, later led the local contractors association. The two were seen as a “dynasty in the construction industry,” White said. Tom Cerra died four weeks ago.
White said Cerra started his career in the Army and worked for DuPont before he became executive director of the Kanawha Valley Builders Association.
According to Charleston Gazette archives, he was married to former state delegate Ramona Cerra and ran for Kanawha County Democratic Executive Committee in 1990 against longtime politician Sam MacCorkle, who ultimately won. Cerra was one of the original members of the School Building Authority, founding member of LEAD, a regional drug and education program, and was a proponent of the HospiceCare organization.
He was a great fit for those jobs, said Carl Agsten, senior vice president of Agsten Construction in the Kanawha Valley.
“Jim, he did a very respectable job in my opinion,” Agsten said. “He worked hard at it, he cared at it and he was a good man.”
He was an honest, positive guy who kept his word — a rarity in today’s world, White noted.
“He was like a big brother to me,” White said.
Outside of work, he was a little more private. Lasure said he wasn’t sure how old Cerra was. He didn’t know he was sick, and didn’t realize he’d died until this week.
But he knew one thing about Cerra: He loved his dogs.
“Anybody that knows him, Jim always had one dog and whichever dog that was at the time came to work with him every day,” Lasure said. He was never apart from his terrier Christie, Lasure said, though he said he wasn’t sure about the spelling of the dog’s name.
Lasure took over as executive director when Cerra retired. At the time, Lasure tried to hold a retirement reception, but Cerra said he wasn’t interested in attending.
So in his honor, the Kanawha Valley Builders Association named a board room in the office for Cerra. Cerra never came back to see it.
Instead, he said he wanted to retire quietly and for the rest of his life, he’d do what he loved: playing his music and playing chess.