Janice Mele, chairwoman of the School Committee and a fixture in the Johnston education community for decades, passed away unexpectedly last week at 69.
Johnston Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bernard DiLullo and Assistant Superintendent Julie-anne Zarrella remembered Mele fondly during an interview at the Johnston Public Schools central office Tuesday morning.
Zarrella described Mele as having a “heart of gold,” while DiLullo said she was always confident no matter the task at hand.
They both had a close relationship with Mele, and DiLullo said he received a call from Mele every day to check in on the school department.
The superintendent was out of town in Boston last week when he received the news from Zarrella via text message, and he was left in complete shock. Zarrella said she began to cry when she was notified.
DiLullo said he remains in disbelief, and he still expects to get those calls from Mele every morning.
“The initial reaction was shock,” DiLullo said. “People couldn’t believe that she had passed. We’ve kind of been going through the week with a profound sadness. People are just sad that she’s no longer around.”
Mele served on the School Committee for well over a decade, and the consensus between DiLullo, Zarrella and members of the committee is that she will be impossible to replace. District 5 committee member Susan Mansolillo told the Sun Rise over the phone Tuesday afternoon that Mele was an “absolutely wonderful woman” who was dedicated to her family and the children in town.
“It’s a great loss for everyone,” Mansolillo said.
Dist. 2 committee member Dawn Aliosio was elected to her first term just this past November, but she said Mele was a mentor and always helped her feel included from the start.
“She was just a wonderful woman,” Aliosio said. “She was very, very good to me. You enter the political arena and she welcomes you with open arms and wants you to feel comfortable.”
District 4 committee member Joseph Rotella echoed Mansolillo, saying Mele has been a friend and colleague ever since he joined the committee in 2008. He said her absence is devastating.
“We’ve probably talked three times a day since 2008,” Rotella said. “It’s going to be a huge void to fill.”
DiLullo said he hopes the council won’t even seek to appoint a new District 3 representative for a while. He said that the town “owes [Mele] that, to kind of keep her memory alive for at least a little bit.” He and Zarrella spoke glowingly of Mele’s kindness and advocacy for public education, two of the many qualities they viewed as irreplaceable.
Zarrella referenced one memory in particular. Mele gave Zarrella, who was then principal at the Early Childhood Center, a few stuffed, dancing polar bears that ended up in the front of the building. The students enjoyed them tremendously, and it was just another example for Zarrella of how the kids came first for Mele.
“She said, ‘Julie, I think your kids will get a big kick out of this,’ and she donated it to the school,” Zarrella recalled. “So every winter, the polar bears went up in the front foyer of the ECC and they sang and danced, and they had a little microphone and it was adorable. She really brought a lot of joy to so many of these kindergarteners in that simple act of kindness, and that’s just who she was.”
Zarrella repeatedly said that Mele was a presence in the community, made evident through her connection to the teachers and committee that she led at least once a month. She said one of the traits that made Mele unique was her respect level among those in the district.
“So wherever she was, she was a presence,” Zarrella said. “She was very highly regarded. Teachers all knew her and respected her. You can’t say that about everyone. So, she was definitely a presence.”
“She was somebody who knew who she was working with,” DiLullo said. “She knew the principals, she knew the teachers, she knew most of the families in the district, the history. And you don’t see that a lot on school boards. A lot of times, they’re above all of that. She was right in the mix.”
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena recognized that quality as well, adding that Mele was like “a sister I never had.” He said that, not only was she loyal to District 3, but she cared deeply for every student in town.
“She’s an icon, and quite frankly they don’t make elected officials like Janice Mele any more,” Polisena, who served as a pallbearer at Mele’s funeral earlier this week, said. “She’s going to be sorely missed.”
Mele was never afraid to speak her mind, a characteristic that DiLullo and Zarrella remembered with wide smiles. As Rotella noted, she worked to “keep the meetings enjoyable” every month, and he said, in the most positive way, she wore her emotions on her sleeve.
“She told it like it was. She made the School Committee meetings very interesting at times,” Zarrella said with a grin, looking at DiLullo as they both chuckled. “Because you knew exactly where she stood and she stuck to protocols and we just found her to be very heartwarming.”
Mele was omnipresent – appearing everywhere from events to graduations – and always strived to improve the schools. DiLullo even noted that constructing a new elementary school in town was one of her passions, and he hopes they can follow through on that for her.
He said Mele’s constant devotion left an indelible mark in Johnston.
“From my perspective, her legacy is [being] a staunch supporter of public education,” the superintendent said. “Her legacy is making Johnston schools great.”