Mafalda DiMango, a Dyker Heights community leader and educational activist who served for decades on the local school board overseeing enormous changes in everything from classroom instruction to cafeteria lunch menus, died on Aug. 2. She was 91 years old.
DiMango was a member of Community School Board 20 for more than 30 years and then served on the Community Education Council of School District 20 when the state education law was changed in 2002 and school boards were abolished.
The civic-minded DiMango was also a charter member of Community Board 11 in Bensonhurst and belonged to the Dyker Heights Civic Association for many years.
“We at the Dyker Heights Civic Association are very saddened,” civic association President Fran Vella-Marrone said. “She was extremely involved in our community for decades. Everyone knows her and everyone has a wonderful story to tell about her.”
In one of her last public appearances, DiMango attended a ceremony at P.S. 204 on June 1 in which the school auditorium was named in her honor.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said DiMango, who attended P.S. 204 from 1931 to 1938. “This is a proud, emotional moment for me.”
DiMango attended the ceremony with her husband of 68 years, Dr. Anthony DiMango, a retired dentist, and their daughters, Hon. Patricia DiMango, a former New York State Supreme Court justice and star of the CBS reality show “Hot Bench,” and Joanne DiMango-Orr, a retired educator.
During her years on School Board 20, DiMango chaired committees on child abuse prevention and nutrition. Her committee meetings often featured discussions on sensitive issues that other officials shied away from. But DiMango always 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 told the Brooklyn Eagle in a 2014 interview.
DiMango also spent a great deal of time promoting arts education. “A child who isn’t good at other subjects can play an instrument or sing and learn to have self-confidence,” DiMango said.
DiMango had a special relationship with P.S. 204, where her two daughters had gone to school and she maintained a relationship with the school until the end of her life.
She attended graduation and encouraged students to have respect. “Respect your parents, respect your teachers and respect yourself,” she told kids.
That phrase is painted over the doorway to the Mafalda DiMango Auditorium.
She served as Parent-Teacher Association president at P.S. 204 from 1963 to 1965, and was PTA president of Dyker Heights Junior High School 1965 to 1967.
In the mid-1960s, she was appointed to Community School Board 20. At the time, school boards wielded enormous power, including the power to hire and fire superintendents.
After New York State changed the education law in 1969 to mandate that school board members be elected, DiMango didn’t quit. She ran for a seat on the school board and won.
“I am saddened to hear of the death of my dear friend and mentor Mafalda DiMango,” said Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress, who had served with her on the school board. “A daughter of Italy who arrived in Brooklyn as a child, she epitomized the American dream. Mafalda was a passionate advocate for women and was the longest serving member of a community school board in New York, where she was instrumental in decades of transforming the lives of thousands of children. Behind her engaging smile and charm was a tough Brooklynite who ensured that children and community won.”
DiMango won re-election every three years until the system was changed again in 2002 and local boards were replaced with community education councils. Membership on the councils was restricted to parents with children in school and people appointed by borough presidents.
DiMango was appointed to the new Community Education Council of School District 20 by then-Borough President Marty Markowitz. She served for more than a decade.
DiMango was born in Salerno, Italy on Oct. 21, 1926 and moved to the U.S. with her parents as a small child. She is a graduate of P.S. 204, New Utrecht High School and Brooklyn College.
As news of her death spread, tributes poured in from friends and colleagues.
“She lived a full life and left her mark,” said Bill Guarinello, chairperson of Community Board 11. “Her legacy was amazing. She was always civic-minded. And she was active in the school system long after her daughters had grown.”
Guarinello noted that DiMango was a original member of Community Board 11. The City Charter created community boards to serve as liaisons between City Hall and neighborhood residents in 1977. “And there was Mafalda, signing up to serve the neighborhood,” he said.
“For many years, the District 20 school community was fortunate to have someone like Mafalda DiMango on the front lines wanting nothing less than our schools to succeed and our students to achieve. I am deeply saddened by her passing and extend my sympathies to her family. I have no doubt that her legacy and impact on District 20 will be evident for years to come,” state Sen. Martin Golden said.
Councilmember Justin Brannan said he was saddened to learn of DiMango’s death and called her “the matriarch of District 20 public schools for over half a century.” DiMango’s “even-handed, common-sense leadership on behalf of thousands of NYC school kids in Southern Brooklyn will always be remembered,” Brannan wrote on Twitter.
DiMango was waked at Andrew Torregrossa & Sons Inc. The funeral mass was held at the Shrine Church of Saint Bernadette. DiMango was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.
The DiMango family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to a scholarship fund that will be established in her name. The family will make an announcement about the fund at a future date.