By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Mafalda DiMango has been an education advocate and community leader in southern Brooklyn for half a century. She was a PTA leader in the 1960s, a time of social upheaval when school busing brought simmering racial tensions exploding to the surface. As a school board member, she had a hand in hiring district superintendents and principals and, by extension, influenced the education of generations of students.
But when you ask her about her career, the modest DiMango would rather talk about the accomplishments of others, not herself.
You ask her about the fact that she was the longest serving local school board member in the city’s history, and she will talk about how proud she is of her two daughters; New York State Supreme Court Justice Patricia DiMango, who was recently named the administrative judge for criminal cases in Kings County, and Joanne DiMango-Orr, a teacher and vice president of the Tinton Falls Education Association, a teacher’s union in Tinton Falls, N.J.
“I’m so proud of both of them. They both worked so hard to get where they are. I think they both have earned a lot of respect from people because they treat people with respect,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle over sandwiches and homemade lentil soup at her Bay Ridge home on Monday afternoon.
Ask her about the fact that she has been a member of the Dyker Heights Civic Association for more than 40 years, and she’ll change the subject to tell you how much she admires her husband of 63 years, Dr. Anthony DiMango, a dentist and oral surgeon. “People still come up to me and tell me to tell him thank you. One woman said to me, ‘Dr. DiMango changed my life!’ She had bad teeth apparently and Tony fixed them and gave her a whole new look,” she said.
But when you press her, DiMango will admit that she has enjoyed quite a career. “I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.
And she’s still at it.
She is a member emeritus of the District 20 Community Education Council, a longstanding member of Community Board 11 in Bensonhurst, is a member of the Lions Club of Bensonhurst, and belongs to the aforementioned Dyker Heights Civic Association. She is deeply concerned about bullying in schools and works closely with educators to develop strategies to prevent bullying and provide help for victims. “It’s not like when we were kids,” she said. “Back then, you might have gotten picked on a little. Today, it’s much more dangerous. Children’s lives are in danger,” she said.
DiMango has lived in southern Brooklyn nearly all of her life. She was born in Salerno, Italy and came with her family to the US at the tender age of 18 months. She was one of five children of John and Josephine Coccaro. After moving to the US, the family settled in Dyker Heights. Young Mafalda attended PS 204, Edward Shallow Junior High School, and New Utrecht High School. “I loved New Utrecht. They had so many wonderful sports you could take part in; badminton, track. It was very exciting,” she recalled.
After high school graduation, she attended Brooklyn College, majoring in languages. She is fluent in Italian and knows her way around Spanish, French, and Russian.
In 1950, she married Anthony DiMango, a handsome young dental student. The ceremony took place at Saint Finbar Catholic Church. Family members had introduced them.
Tony DiMango was a student at Georgetown University near Washington D.C. at the time and the newlyweds moved there after their marriage. Mafalda DiMango got a job at the Library of Congress, serving as a liaison between the library and various dignitaries that came to town. At a cocktail reception hosted by diplomats from the Dominican Republic, she met 1930s child star and icon Shirley Temple. “I enjoyed meeting her so much! She was so friendly and still so beautiful. It had been many years since she had been a child star and she still had a youthful glow about her,” DiMango said.
Tony DiMango got a job in Brooklyn after graduating from dental school and the couple moved back to the borough where Mafalda had grown up. “We lived on very little money, but we did our best to make ends meet,” she said. Part of the reason the money was tight was Dr. DiMango’s generosity. He would often provide dental services for free if someone was in dire need, his wife said.
It was following the births of her two daughters that Mafalda DiMango launched her career as an education advocate. She was elected PTA president at P.S. 204 when Patricia DiMango was in the third grade. “We had almost 200 members. Parents were very involved in their children’s education. Of course, it was also a time when most women were homemakers. They weren’t working outside the home yet and they had the time to come to meetings,” she recalled.
DiMango was serving as PTA president in the early 1960s, when the school busing controversy was erupting across the country. New York City officials, eager to racially integrate the public schools, discussed busing black children to primarily white neighborhoods and having white youngsters attend schools in black areas.
“It was quite an emotional time for everyone. There was a lot of anger. Everyone felt like they weren’t being treated fairly,” DiMango said.
Her reaction to the societal turmoil was to stay calm, steady, and level-headed. “I used to present the facts to the parents, plain and simple. I didn’t rile people up. I found that if you were truthful to them and made them aware of what was going on, without either damning anyone or by contrast, sugarcoating things, people would listen to you and follow your suggestions,” she said.
By this time, DiMango was also serving as president of the School District 20 PTA President’s Council, a group made up of PTA presidents from around the district. District 20 covers public schools in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and parts of Bensonhurst, Borough Park, and Sunset Park.
In the mid-1960s, DiMango was appointed to a seat on Community School Board 20, a nine-member panel charged with overseeing education policy in District 20. The board wielded enormous power in those days. The panel could hire and fire district superintendents and principals and decide what children were learning in the classroom.
When decentralization was instituted in 1969 and school board seats became elected posts rather than appointed posts, DiMango ran for a seat and won. She won re-election every three years like clockwork, all the way to 2002. “I never held a fundraiser. I never felt it wasn’t fair to ask people for money. It would have been like asking people to pay for me to run for the school board,” she said.
During her years on the school board, she headed up committees on child abuse prevention and nutrition. Her committee meetings often featured discussions on sensitive issues, but DiMango said the straight talk was necessary. “Nobody wants to talk about child abuse or how children aren’t being fed properly at home. But you can’t sweep things under the run and hope they’ll go away,” she said.
She made sure she visited schools, asked principals, teachers, and parents lots of questions, and promoted arts education. “I think it’s so important. A child who isn’t good at other subjects can play and instrument or sing and learn to have self-confidence. And to sit in a school auditorium and listen to children play the violin is a wonderful thing,” DiMango said.
In 2002, the New York State Legislature changed the state’s education law and abolished community school boards. The mayor was put in charge of the city’s public school system. The school boards were replaced by community education councils, 11 member-boards that serve in an advisory capacity.
The majority of seats on the councils are won through elections in which PTA leaders vote. Two of the seats, however, are appointed by the borough president. Such was the respect that DiMango had earned during her school board tenure, that Marty Markowitz, the borough president at the time, appointed her to the District 20 CEC.
She served for over a decade. She is now a member emeritus, attending all of the council’s meetings and working on such issues as preventing children from gaining access to Internet pornography.
But before long, her modesty comes to the forefront again and she starts deflecting praise to talk about how much she admires the current CEC President Laurie Windsor. “That Laurie, she does such a great job. She really knows so much about the school system and has done so much to help parents,” DiMango said.
Sounds like something others have said about her.