Remembering Teo Surasky, funny, compassionate teen who passed away a month after graduating Berkeley High

As a newborn baby, he starred in ‘Teaching Teo,’ a mockumentary about ‘politically correct child rearing, Berkeley-lesbian style.’ He grew into a man who was a light in everyone’s life.

Teo Hunt Surasky at his graduation. Credit: Cecilie Surasky

“The contagious big smile.” “The realest person I knew.” “Observant and humble.” “The funniest man I’ve ever met.” “Intelligent and selfless.” ”Makes people smile and feel like they matter.” “Buddha Boy.” 

These are just some of the ways friends, family and community members remember our sweet Teo Leopold Hunt Surasky, who passed accidentally on July 23, 2020, at the age of 18.  

Teo was an exceptionally beloved child who, for all 18 of his years, lit up every room he entered, even when he was feeling shy. He was welcomed by his moms, Carolyn Hunt and Cecilie Surasky, into an unusually extensive community of born and chosen family that included loving aunties, adoring uncles, grandparents and cousins.

Teo’s humility and Buddha-nature were highlighted in his starring role as a baby in the mockumentary Teaching Teo, which his aunty Diane Dodge made with a lot of help from his mom Cecilie. The film appeared in LGBT film festivals on every continent. The tagline was ”It takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes the Village People” – an apt description of the many people who took on raising Teo as their own, including his Uncle Franco Beneduce and Tia Pilar Gonzales. 

Always one to arrive in style, 1-year-old Teo, with his co-stars in tow, arrived for the grand premiere at The Castro Theater in San Francisco in a stretch limo, making a splash with sunglasses and his mini feather boa. 

Moms Carolyn Hunt and Cecilie Surasky with their son Teo at the Castro Theater for the premier of Teaching Teo. Teo is holding a sign that says, “No autographs, please.” Credit: Franco Beneduce

Joking aside, Teo truly did have an unusually deep and embodied sense of what really matters in life from a very early age, while never taking himself too seriously. He was a compassionate, rap music-loving baseball player who had a wicked sense of humor and a unique way of thinking about the world.

As a little boy, despite being raised by two peace activist Berkeley moms, he loved playing with nerf guns and any toy that would shoot. In later years he would point out to his moms, rightly so, that kids knew the difference between playing with guns and real life, so why didn’t adults?

Credit: Cecilie Surasky

He later joined the City of Berkeley Rec League with “Coach Ray-Ray” (Rob). When his very first team game ended with an extreme shutout, and his parents remarked that they couldn’t imagine watching another game that painful, he wisely responded, “Moms! It’s just kids on a field playing with sticks and balls.” He knew early on that much of life was a game to be enjoyed, and was forever bemused by the ways adults often seemed to make things harder than necessary.

In high school, according to his friends, he had an irritating habit of rolling out of bed and acing tests without studying, but that is because he mostly valued school as the place where he would connect with friends. One teacher in a class where he was challenging or would support other kids in his own, subversive way, famously kicked him out so many times it produced a spontaneous “Free Teo!” movement, complete with chants and kids standing on chairs.

Most of all, Teo was an extraordinary friend and human who practiced unconditional love, most often, when no one was looking. He was known as a “ladies man” at Berkeley High School, said his dear friend Maliha Khan, not because he was a flirt, but because so many girls trusted him and felt that he truly listened to them.

Over the months since his passing, many Berkeley High students have shared notes with Teo’s family to describe who he was to them:

“Teo had a comforting presence. He made you feel calm, respected and valued. You could talk about anything with Teo and he would never make you feel judged.” 

“He was truly one of the funniest kindest people I’ve ever met. when he walked into a room he would bring so much happiness into it with him. I always remember being so excited when I heard Teo was going to be somewhere because I knew how much fun I was going to have.” 

“Teo helped me be more open and confident with myself. Seeing someone who had so much love around him made me love him even more.” 

“One thing I remember was how happy Teo always was. Every baseball practice he would make everyone laugh and we’d have such a good time.”  

“There was never a dull moment with Teo. He made people feel heard. He would consistently make time for the people in his life no matter what was going on in his. He made you feel cared for, he listened, and he always gave his honest and thoughtful opinion. He could say the funniest things but was also able to have the deepest and most insightful conversations.” 

“Every time he stepped foot in a room his energy was felt. Whenever I was with him everything felt right. He was so intelligent and selfless. He always listened, gave me good advice, and always made me feel loved.” 

Teo had a number of particularly close brothers, many lifelong friends he met at Berkeley Arts Magnet, BHS, or baseball.

Jamir Thomas shared, “He was just a person that it is so rare because people like Teo don’t come around a lot. He didn’t care for social status, he didn’t care about being popular or anything. He was just so himself, and I really try to invite that into myself. When he walked in a room, his presence was so felt because of the way he was, he wasn’t trying to seek attention or seek validation from other people.“

“I think that Teo just had a maturity and a realization of what life really is about, before anyone else knew what life really was,“ said Deven Beasley. “He really wanted to give hope to others and he wanted to give a genuine sensation of love to anybody and everybody he came across.”

Teo’s extended family, including all of his friends, has grown closer over the last 20 months as we have spent countless hours gathering, sharing, crying, ritualizing and appreciating Teo together, both in person and on regular Zoom calls that extend across the world. He continues to be a very real presence in our lives, showing up to dozens of family and friends regularly through small and big miracles. Through his sheer tenacity and love, and capacity to communicate directly, he has forced many of us to rewrite our understanding of the world, materialism, and what happens after our bodies cease working. Daily, Teo continues to show us that he will always be a part of our lives.

The Dhesi-Beasley family (Riti, David, Deven and Nikhil) has started The Teo Fund, a college scholarship for graduating African American seniors at Berkeley High. All are invited for the annual casual gathering to honor Teo and The Teo Fund at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 23, at Panoramic Hill in Berkeley, where Dwight Way turns into Panoramic Way. You can make a tax-deductible gift to the scholarship by selecting “The Teo Fund” on the Berkeley Public Schools Fund website.