Robert LaFazia spoke through tears during Monday night’s Town Council meeting, fondly remembering his dear friend Janice Mele.
Mele, who had served on the School Committee since 2007 and was its chairwoman for several years, passed away unexpectedly in April at age 69. Her life’s work was as a librarian at the St. Thomas School in Providence, and LaFazia remembered an exchange of theirs from shortly after her retirement.
“She just recently retired, I don’t think it had maybe been two years,” LaFazia, who was elected as the new chair during Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, said. “And I had talked to her a number of times and I found out that she went back a couple days a week. I said, ‘Janice, what are you doing? … You just retired.’”
“She said, ‘Bobby, I miss the kids,’” he added, with tears in his eyes.
LaFazia said a resolution before the council Monday seeking to rename Johnston High School’s library in Mele’s memory was a fitting tribute to Mele. District 3 Councilman Joseph Polisena Jr. proposed the idea, noting that Mele’s legacy will be even more secure with the honor.
“There’s something that I was thinking about – a lot of us wonder the legacy that we’re going to leave behind when we’re no longer here,” Polisena Jr. said. “But with Janice, she had tenacity, dedication, commitment [and] kindness. We can all say that the legacy that she leaves behind is one that will endure for decades to come.”
Polisena Jr. listed some of Mele’s numerous accomplishments from her time in the district, ranging from securing new science labs to procuring a new heating system. He said her achievements went beyond just those of a politician.
“Since Johnston is such a small community, Janice was just a great person,” Polisena Jr. “She was a great mother, she was a great grandmother, she was also a great friend … Her name will be up there for quite some time.”
The resolution was approved unanimously, after which the council took up an appointment to fill Mele’s seat in District 3. District 4 President Robert V. Russo reminded the council that the appointee must be a voter from District 3 and a member of the Democratic Party, which were both the same as Mele.
On a 4-0 vote – with District 2 Councilman David Santilli Jr. recusing himself – the council appointed David Santilli Sr. as the new District 3 representative on the School Committee. Santilli Sr. previously served eight years on the School Committee, including six as chairman. He also previously spent six years on the Town Council, including two as its president.
Both LaFazia and Mayor Joseph Polisena offered congratulations to Santilli Sr., but both cautioned that he has tough shoes to fill.
“Obviously, it’s going to be real big shoes to fill, and most importantly a big, big heart to fill,” Polisena said. “This is truly, truly well deserved for a person who, really there aren’t enough kind words to say about her.”
Polisena said Mele was a close friend and “the sister I never had.” He said they spoke at least every other day, with discussion topics varying, but there was always one constant – Polisena knew how much she cared about everyone in Johnston.
“She cared about her constituents, but she cared about constituents in all of our districts,” Polisena said. “That was in her DNA to care for people in this town. It’s a big void, there’s no doubt there’s a void, for me as a friend as well as a leader.”
Both Polisena and LaFazia still feel the sting from the day Mele passed away. Polisena said he was “numb” when he heard the news.
“It was just awful. It was an awful feeling,” Polisena said. “And we all know Janice Mele, she just brightened our day. She never had a bad word to say about anybody. She was always kind and compassionate, and dedicated to the children in this town.”
LaFazia said he is “still feeling the pain.”
“She was the heart and soul of this committee,” LaFazia said. “She was a hard-working, dedicated individual. She was always there, with an open mind, a big heart, and did everything that she could do for a lot of people, not just the school system but the Democratic Party. She was always there whenever you asked her. She never said no.”
Polisena said he would like to work together with the School Committee to brainstorm the proper way to honor Mele in the library, possibly by etching her silhouette onto a plaque.
“We’re going to do something nice for her,” Polisena said.