PITTSTON — The Distinguished Woman Award is given annually to women who leave an impact on their respective communities.
Nobody fits that description better than Maria Capolarella-Montante.
At 83, Capolarella-Montante been a volunteer with countless organizations and groups, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
“Through all of the volunteering, the thing that really, really stays with you are the people that you meet, the friends that you make, the acquaintances and all of the little incidents that happen in between that just stay with you,” she said. “And the feeling of accomplishment is just wonderful.”
The Distinguished Woman Award is presented in memory of Mary Boylan, the first female vice-president executive director of the Greater Pittston Chamber of Commerce who was instrumental in organizing the Women’s Network.
It is awarded in March, which is Women’s History Month. The theme of this year’s award is “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
The award is typically given to two women in Greater Pittston, but Michelle Mikitish, executive vice-president of the Greater Pittston Chamber of Commerce, said Capolarella-Montante is the key example of what the award represents and that it’s fitting to honor only her this year.
“I think in a lot of ways the key to the award is women who have done things in their lives just because of what life threw at them, sometimes ‘in spite of’ and sometimes just ‘because of,’” Mikitish said. “But, they were living what they thought were ordinary lives and extraordinary lives came from that. When we sit down and talk about how you define those people, Maria epitomizes that.”
The Greater Pittston Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network will honor Capolarella-Montante at a special ceremony at 6 p.m. Tuesday March 13 at Fox Hill Country Club.
A Pittston girl
Capolarella-Montante, born Maria Manganaro, has lived in Pittston all but one year of her life when she resided in Scranton.
She prefers to forget that year.
“I just had to come back to Pittston,” she said. “All my life I’ve loved this town, and that one year was torture. I had to come back to this town that I loved, and the people that I loved, and especially to be close to my mother.”
Capolarella-Montante graduated from Pittston High School in 1952 and immediately entered the working world doing payroll for American Chain and Cable in West Pittston.
“It was in that era where women were supposed to finish high school and get married,” she said. “I wanted to go (to college), but I didn’t have the opportunity to go.”
After her time at American Chain and Cable, Capolarella-Montante worked as a secretary at St. John’s High School from 1967 to 1972.
Sometime in between, she married her husband Angelo Capolarella and they had two daughters — Marilyn and Michele.
Angelo passed away in 1973, and Capolarella-Montante, who kept the Capolarella name to honor her late husband, raised both daughters, 11 and 13 at the time, on her own.
“Thankfully, I lived next to my mother,” she said.
After her daughters grew up, Capolarella-Montante returned to the working world at the Luzerne Intermediate Unit for 16 years until she retired in 1996.
She’s currently married to Chester Montante, whom she married in 1992.
When thinking of how much Capolarella-Montante has done with her time as a volunteer, it’s easy to remember some of her recent contributions and accomplishments.
But, her time as a volunteer goes back further than just a few years.
“I’ve been a volunteer all my life practically,” Capolarella-Montante said. “Right after high school, I began volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Cancer Society. I was all over volunteering and I loved it because it was so fulfilling and it gave me the satisfaction of doing something, kind of doing God’s work. That’s what it felt like.”
When her daughters were young, Capolarella-Montante started the Oregon Park Drillerettes, a twirling unit to compensate for girls not having as many sports activities as boys.
“There was kind of this unbalance between the way the girls were treated and boys were treated,” she said. “The boys were playing baseball and the girls were sitting there playing with their dolls. So, we formed a drill team and it lasted five years. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
This also led her to start a Girl Scout troop affiliated with St. Rocco’s Church.
“We walked into church and there was all Boy Scouts and no Girl Scouts,” Capolarella-Montante said. “I thought ‘okay, here we go,” so that was my next project and we started a Girl Scouts.”
Her other volunteering accolades include president of the Friends of the Pittston Memorial Library, chairperson of the Pittston Tomato Festival, co-chairperson of the Pittston Farmers Market, founder of a local Red Hat Society, member of the Italian-American Association, member of the Greater Pittston Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network, vice-president of the St. Joseph Marello Parish Social Club, the Women’s Commission in Wilkes-Barre, as well as other positions with various organizations.
Breaking the barrier
One mission Capolarella-Montante always sought to accomplish was getting women more involved in organizations and decision-making throughout the city.
She started by serving on Pittston City Council for 16 years and used her influence to try and give women more influence in the city.
“I stayed on the council because, during the time I served on the Women’s Commission in Wilkes-Barre, that was a time when we were trying to promote women on boards because they were mainly all men,” Capolarella-Montante said. “That was kind of one of the whims for the Women’s Commission and I always knew in my heart I was going to run for office. There was a little bit of political blood in me because of my father, so I stayed on council primarily because I was the only woman and I was making a statement.”
Capolarella-Montante offered hope that women are meant to do more than just be housewives.
“I don’t know if I broke the glass ceiling, but I was aware of it and it was unheard of for a woman to climb the pole to do anything of that nature,” she said. “We were supposed to get married, have children and stand behind our husbands. We were the women behind the men. That was drilled into you because you learned to cook, sew and all of those things. I kind of resented that.”
With statues and monuments in the city to honor coal miners and firefighters, Capolarella-Montante played a significant role in making sure women of the dress factories were honored.
She campaigned to have a monument made for them, which currently sits on Main Street between two benches on the sidewalk by the Lower Tomato Festival Lot.
“I think preserving our history and the people that did all of these things is what I wanted to do,” she said. “I want them to be remembered.”
One of her biggest impacts was getting the Pittston Memorial Library out of city hall, saying when she served on council, they were receiving grants to refurbish the building and move the library in the basement.
She and members of the library raised funds on their own to help move the library to a new building.
“I was on the council when we were downstairs,” she said. “I was given an ultimatum to stay on the council or stay on the library board. At that time, Jean Yates was on the board and (Mayor) Michael Lombardo had taken an interest in the library and new people were coming in. I knew we were going in the right direction because more people were getting involved.”
The building the library is currently in was eventually purchased and became its new home.
A lasting impact
Capolarella-Montante can be seen at most events in Pittston, but if not, she can always be found on the Inspiration Mural painted on the Newrose Building on Main Street.
She likes to forget she’s on it, but her husband Chester will never forget.
“I was so honored when that happened; I really was,” Capolarella-Montante said. “When I go down, I really don’t look it, but he does. He always goes by and says ‘Hello, Mary.’ He always says hello to me on the wall.”
With so much she’s accomplished over her life, Capolarella-Montante said it’s hard to think of one thing she’s most proud of having accomplished or helping to accomplish.
“They’ve all been special,” she said. “But, I would have to say going into the library, and the kids with the Drillerettes and the Girl Scouts — it was all special. They all had very deep meaning to me.”
Reach Jimmy Fisher at 570-704-3972 or on Twitter @SD_JimmyFisher.