Monessen to honor legislator, general at library fundraiser

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Monessen has been home to many successful people. There's Frances McDormand, who won an Academy Award for "Fargo" in 1996, pro football player Joe Heath and microchip company founder John Husher, who generously funds college scholarships for Monessen students.

Each year the Monessen Public Library recognizes the city's success stories -- and this year two women who have excelled in government and military service will be honored at the library's annual fundraiser.

The Aug. 3 gala event is called "A Conversation with Women of Distinction," and will honor former state Rep. Kathy Manderino, who spent 18 years in the Legislature, and retired Major Gen. Jessica Wright, now acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon.

"Monessen was a very special place, a very nurturing, from family to the community to the school," Ms. Manderino said.

"I live in Philadelphia, but my heart is in Monessen,'' she said. "Valley people are special; they care about you."

What was it about growing up in a small town that helped her succeed in state government?

"I think it's being the big fish in a small pond. You're not overwhelmed by anything. You feel special because people are always encouraging you to be what you want to be, and you think anything is possible.''

Her father, James Manderino, set an example for government service, as well. He was speaker and majority leader of the state House of Representatives.

Ms. Manderino grew up with four younger brothers, and always did what her brothers did, she said -- until her mother told her she could not work in a steel mill after high school.

She agrees with Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of the bestseller "Lean In," in which she advises women to take a more active leadership role at work. Ms. Sandberg said we need to encourage little girls by telling them not so much that they are pretty, but that they are intelligent and are going to be good leaders.

"I agree with her," Ms. Manderino said. "When I was in the Legislature and would go out to talk to elementary students, I'd explain my job. I'd start by talking about how the president was elected and people voted for him, and how a mayor is elected and how I was elected. It never failed that a little girl would always ask, 'You mean a girl can be president?' "

She said she was inspired to run for the Legislature when she remembered how much of an impact her father had.

"When I was little and we'd be out, someone was always stopping my father with a concern, or telling us kids how much he helped them," she said.

"When someone in Philadelphia encouraged me to run for the Legislature, I thought, 'Are you crazy?' I knew how much time it took being away from home. But then I remembered how much of a difference you can make in people's lives."

She said she is very honored to speak at the Monessen event, and particularly because it is the library. "Both of my parents were active in supporting the library; my mother, Connie Manderino was president of the Friends of the Monessen Library."

Ms. Manderino, 54, was a state legislator representing the Philadelphia area from 1993 to 2010, when she retired.

She graduated from Penn State University and then went to Temple University School of Law. She is now vice president for community organizations for Interact in Philadelphia, which has 500 employees who work with disabled residents and those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Jessica Garfola Wright is a native of Monessen and went to elementary school there before her family moved to Bethel Park.

She is the deputy senior policy adviser on recruitment, career development, pay and benefits for 1.4 million active duty military personnel, 1.3 million Guard and Reserve personnel and 680,000 Department of Defense civilians.

She had a distinguished 35-year career in the military. She retired as a major general in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

Mrs. Wright graduated from Alderson Broaddus College in West Virginia, south of Pittsburgh, with a degree in social work, and holds a master's degree in management from Webster University in St. Louis.

She is married and has a grown son who is serving in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

Virginia Monoghan, a former Monessen High School English and speech teacher, is a library board member helping to organize the gala event.

"Monessen has so many impressive graduates, it is hard to choose," she said. Ms. Monoghan taught Ms. McDormand. Ms. McDormand graduated from Bethany College and received a master's degree in theater at Yale.

In 2010, at the first library gala fundraiser, Mr. Husher, who founded a California microchip company, was roasted. A Monessen graduate, he has donated $1.5 million for college scholarships to his alma mater's students.

In 2011, Monessen High School sisters Suzie and Jamie Williams, who played golf, were honored. Both married, and moved to Pittsburgh and State College, but have given back to Monessen through generous corporate donations.

In 2012, longtime Monessen High School football coach Joe Gladys was roasted. He won a WPIAL championship and eight of his players went on to play in the NFL.

Ms. Manderino and Mrs. Wright will speak and answer questions at the Saturday night dinner. Tickets are $50 and include the buffet at the St. Spyridon's Greek Hall in Monessen. Call 724-684-4750 for tickets.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer:


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