Brooklyn Boro

Dignitaries, elected officials gather to honor community activist Mary Sansone on her 100th birthday

June 15, 2016 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From left: Bestselling author Nicholas Pileggi, Mary Sansone and former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Eagle photos by John Alexander

On June 14, hundreds of guests gathered at the Dyker Beach Golf Club to celebrate Mary Crisalli Sansone’s 100th birthday. 

In attendance were dignitaries, elected officials, such as Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and family members. Also present were Sansone’s close friends, including Matilda Cuomo, wife of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo and mother of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as bestselling author Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote “Wise Guy,” upon which the movie “Goodfellas” was based.

Among the representatives of the various associations Sansone supports was Josephine A. Maietta, president of the Association of Italian Educators, together with board member Lisa Calello. Sansone received the Leadership and Heritage Award from the association in 2008.

The 4-foot-11 Sansone was born on June 12, 1916 to Italian parents, in what is now the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. It was no surprise that she chose to become a social worker, as Sansone has been deeply involved with organizations that helped people in need since her teenage years. She also became a community activist, which allowed her to pursue her life-long fight for social justice and human rights.

In 1949, Sansone (formerly Mary Crisalli) married Zachary Sansone, a lawyer from Naples, Italy. He worked the docks on the Brooklyn waterfront while she continued her career in social work.  In 1956, the couple, along with their two children, moved into a single-family home near New Utrecht Avenue.

In 1964, Sansone and her husband founded the Congress of Italian-American Organization (CIAO), a social services group. In 1988, Sansone founded CURE (Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality), a nonprofit corporation dedicated to reducing ethnic and racial tension and conflict while promoting mutual respect and understanding among diverse groups within the community.

Sansone fought hard for equal opportunities for women, the underprivileged, Italian-Americans and people of all ethnicities. Over the years she has been close to almost every politician in New York, regardless of party affiliation. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani would stop by her house for dinner, former Mayor Bloomberg gave her the key to the city and in her home she proudly displays a picture of President Barack Obama embracing her.

Bloomberg spoke about Sansone during the cocktail hour, saying, “Mary is genuine and always has a smile on her face and in her heart. She and her late husband Zachary supported me when no one else did.” He went on to explain that Sansone is known as the “meatball queen of Brooklyn,” because of her incredible Italian cooking. Bloomberg presented Sansone with a T-shirt naming her as his vice-presidential choice, had he decided to run for office.

Sansone’s nephew Carmine served as master of ceremonies and explained that during the past week, Sansone had received congratulatory calls from Gov. Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a letter from Guiliani, and a Proclamation from Pope Francis.

Guests enjoyed a brief video about Sansone’s life, as everyone sang along to her favorite song, “We Are the World,” which played in the background.

Sansone’s daughter Carmela, a psychologist who lives in New Jersey, gave a well-received speech before introducing her mother.  When a microphone was brought to Sansone’s table, the feisty centenarian stood up and walked to the front of the room to deliver her remarks.

She vividly described her life from the age of 12, and all the struggles she endured in her quest for justice and equality.  She proudly claimed to have started the first coalition in the nation of black, white, Hispanic and Italian-American members under then-Mayor John Lindsay. She talked about initiatives she undertook, such as starting the first pre-K programs (then called day care) and after school and senior center activities.

Sansone also recalled difficulties she experienced, such as being threatened by what she described as “racketeers” like Mead Esposito and Joe Colombo. She shared the story of the time Colombo wanted to meet her and sent a car to bring her to where he was waiting.  She and her husband were wary of the invitation, but their friend Pileggi convinced her to go.

Colombo initially wanted to do business with her, but she immediately turned him down.  He was angry, but she quickly left and took a cab back home. Regarding the mobsters and politicians who tried to squash her efforts, she proudly said, “I’m happy to say they’re all dead and I’m still here.”

De Blasio presented Sansone with a Proclamation declaring June 12 as Mary Sansone Day in the City of New York. “All New York City has something to celebrate, because Mary Sansone is a treasure of this entire city. We can say this is the century of Mary Sansone,” said de Blasio.

He went on to say that when The New York Times asked him who was the most interesting person he ever met, he quickly responded, “Mary Sansone.” He added, “Mary was born ahead of her time, a strong, professional woman, a leader … so much of her life was about uniting people. Some of today’s politicians could learn a lesson from her — talk about building a wall, Mary built bridges.”