Dyker Heights

Elected officials, civic leaders honor community activist Mary Sansone on her 101st birthday

June 15, 2017 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York state Comptroller Scott Stringer presents Mary Sansone with her commendation. Eagle photos by John Alexander

Matilda Cuomo Named Sansone Foundation Person of the Year

More than a hundred guests gathered at the Dyker Beach Golf Club on Monday night to celebrate Mary Crisalli Sansone’s 101st birthday at the Sansone Foundation’s annual dinner.

Those attending the celebration included New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon, former New York Human Rights Commissioner, candidate for Brooklyn District Attorney Patricia Gatling, state Sen. Marty Golden’s Deputy Chief of Staff and City Council candidate John Quaglione and best-selling author Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote “Casino” and “Wise Guy,” upon which the movie “Goodfellas” was based.

The 4-foot-11 Sansone, an iconic figure in New York City politics, 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, because since her teens she was deeply involved with organizations that helped people in need.  And thus she became a community activist, which allowed her to pursue her lifelong fight for social justice and human rights.

In 1964, Sansone and her husband Zachary Sansone 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 every politician in New York, regardless of party affiliation, from John V. Lindsay to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani would stop by her house for dinner and former Mayor Bloomberg gave her the key to the city. 

Sansone’s nephew Carmine Gibaldi served as master of ceremonies and thanked everyone for supporting the Ralph J. Sansone Foundation, which is named after Mary’s 32-year-old son who died tragically in a small plane accident in 1986. Ralph was a judge, labor arbitrator and community activist. The foundation continues the work of CIAO, and has added the Universal Pre-K program, serving pre-K children and their families.  The foundation has awarded more than $365,000 in scholarship money to deserving students.

This year’s winners of the Ralph J. Sansone endowment, which provides scholarships to high school graduates, were Anthony Gallo (New Utrect High School), David Gikoshvili (James Madison High School), Anne Russo (Fontbonne Hall Academy), Philip D. Thomas (Xaverian High School) and Jin Chan Zheng (Edward R Murrow High School). Dina Kupfer was the recipient of the R.J.S. Endowment Brooklyn Law School Scholarship.

Stringer presented Sansone with the comptroller commendation, calling her a well-known civic leader who has had the ear of every elected official as far back as former Mayor John Lindsay, who was elected in 1965. 

“The award is given on behalf of 8.4 million people for the work you do for children,” said Stringer. “You have dedicated your life to making life better for the next generation.” 

Brooklyn Borough Director Daniel Abramson presented Sansone with a proclamation on behalf of de Blasio, proclaiming June 12 as Mary Sansone Day in the City of New York. Quaglione also presented Sansone with a proclamation on behalf of Golden. He said that Sansone has been a friend to Golden from the time Golden was a city councilmember. 

The Person of the Year award was presented to Sansone’s close friend Matilda Raffa Cuomo, wife of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, and mother of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The former first lady of New York has dedicated her life to service and is an advocate on behalf of women, children and families.

She is also a champion of education and a founder of Mentoring U.S.A.

In his introduction Gibaldi called her “the most active New York state first lady in the history of New York state.”

Cuomo thanked the foundation for the award and recalled how her husband would come home and tell her how outspoken Sansone was for the time and how fond of her he was. Cuomo called Sansone a real pioneer.

Sansone’s daughter Carmela, a psychologist, introduced her mother. Sansone recalled her earliest political memory, “At the age of 12, I made my first speech about the Junior Wobblies at the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World club on Henry Street and Carroll Street] because my father, who was a union organizer, said that if you want to be involved this is what you need to do; be involved and speak. At the age of 101, I can still see my father at the end of the hall crying with pride.  He is still my inspiration and role model. After that, all I wanted to do was organize.”

“Without question one of the most incredible people I’ve met in my life is Mary Sansone,” McMahon told the Brooklyn Eagle. “To sit with her in the living room of her beautiful home and hear the history of her life over the last 100 years — her father’s activism, her activism, her beloved husband’s activism — is inspiring.” 

“I’ve known Mary literally my entire life given that I’m her nephew — my mother was her youngest sister — and grew up with her son Ralph and spent countless hours at her house,” Gibaldi said.

“Being at her home was like being in a laboratory for social activism and political engagement.  She was involved in, and therefore we at her home became all involved in, the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, social justice and political activism.  

“I quickly learned that being politically engaged and involved was the way to bring about change and hopefully social justice.  Mary taught me that you may not win every ‘battle’ but that you never give up.  She also taught me that all people are inherently good and that I should never feel that I’m better than anyone and that no one is better than me. 

“In this present national political climate, we need more Mary Sansones to provide guidance, support, and encouragement for those that cannot protect themselves.”