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GEC celebrates longtime leader, friend at surprise retirement party

It’s been “A Long and Winding Road” for Paul Cassone, executive director and CEO of the Guild for Exceptional Children (GEC). Friends, family and elected officials came together Thurs., Jan 10 to surprise the unabashed Beatles fan with a retirement party at the Bay Ridge Manor.

Cassone has headed up the GEC for 13 years and spent over 40 years advocating for and supporting people living with disabilities. His mother, Jeanette Cassone, who died in 2011, was one of the early founders of the Guild and his brother Frank is a resident in a GEC group home.

Cassone thought that he would be attending a party in honor of former state Sen. Marty Golden. But the tables were turned and Cassone — who had arrived bearing a gift for Golden — was surprised to learn that the party was actually for him.

“Paul’s brother was the reason for many of the great things accomplished by the Guild for Exceptional Children,” Golden said.

The GEC was founded in 1958 by parents, like Cassone’s, who wanted to provide better lives for their children with special needs. Thanks to the help of then-state Sen. William Conklin and founding parents Pauline Argo and Olga DeFelippo, the Guild became a nurturing environment for people with developmental disabilities.

“Paul is one of the major reasons that the Guild is a national leader today, and for all it’s been able to achieve in its residency programs across this great community,” Golden added.

Incoming Executive Director and CEO Joe Riley delivered the welcoming remarks. Riley emphasized Cassone’s dedication to the families of the GEC. “Paul reminds me of my favorite character from literature, Don Quixote, because Paul, like Don Quixote, has always been on a quest to protect the rights of people with developmental disabilities,” Riley said.

“And Paul still has a few more windmills he wants to tilt at,” he added. He concluded by thanking Cassone for being “a great boss, an excellent colleague, an outstanding mentor and a great friend.”

Cassone attended Xaverian High School, graduated with a B.A. from Brooklyn College and holds a Masters of Arts degree in Special Education from Teachers College of Columbia University.

“I did this, I took this direction in my life because of my brother Frank,” Cassone said. “It’s a labor of love. Seeing what life was like for him growing up, the difficulties he had to face and the difficulties my mom had to face because she had Frank and my younger brother John who was a cancer survivor.”

He explained that after the abuses at Willowbrook were exposed, the world saw the horrors of what occurred there and it motivated him to become a special education teacher, before pursuing a career as a direct service worker starting in 1972.

“I’m very proud of the fact that the Guild opened the first residence in the entire state,” he added. “And my advocacy will continue,” he promised.

Returning to Cassone’s love of all things Beatles, Riley explained that there was a picture of Paul McCartney under one of the place settings on each table and whoever had it would get to take home the centerpiece.

Guild Board of Directors President Frank Sena said that the Guild is a better place since Cassone has been CEO. “You had a positive impact on those people who can’t take care of themselves,” he added.

Councilmember Justin Brannan presented Cassone with a citation from the City Council. Tom McAlvannah offered the toast, and a highlight of the evening was when Riley surprised Cassone with a framed lyric to the Beatles’ ballad “In My Life.”

The evening closed with a performance by the band which Cassone has belonged to for years, the Whippoorwills, featuring Cassone on lead guitar, Justice Matt D’Emic on bass and John Lepore on rhythm guitar.

The classic rock trio performed a heartfelt rendition of Bob Dylan and The Byrds’ “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and in keeping with the theme of the evening, the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

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