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Monday, February 11, 2008

A servant to the city saying goodbye

By Brian McCready
Milford Bureau Chief
— For 32 years, Joan Politi personified community involvement.
She was a PTA member, a Board of Education member, an alderwoman and led numerous agencies and civil groups.
But she may be remembered best as the person who banned hats in schools.
The hat ban in 2000 made headlines and caused some tense moments, but Politi’s friends said her overall record of service is what will have a lasting impact on the city.
Now, Politi is bringing her time in Milford to an end. She and her husband are moving to Massachusetts to be closer to their grandchildren.
“I’ve been motivated to be an involved citizen,” Politi said. “It’s been a privilege to serve the people of Milford in my role as a city leader. I feel very blessed that my community involvement has broadened my horizons in so many ways.”
Pamela Staneski, who served on the school board with Politi for four years, calls Politi the consummate “worker bee.”
“When you think Joan Politi you think service. She was all about service. Milford will have an empty hole to fill,” she said.
Mayor James L. Richetelli Jr. said the “entire city is going to miss (Politi’s) friendly smile and her untiring efforts in so many different ways to enhance the quality of life for the citizens of Milford.”
Politi said she had no desire to leave Milford but that all changed when her 3-year-old grandchild said in August, “Nana, Connecticut is too far away.”
“I said ‘You’re right,’” she said.
Politi and her husband, James, have sold their house and will be heading to Tyngsboro, Mass. to be close to their children, Justin, 32, and Melissa, 29, and her two grandchildren.
“Milford’s been a wonderful place to live and raise our children. I’m sad to leave that behind. Every day I’d go to work and shed a tear or two,” Politi said. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Politi, who is a cardiac nurse, said she wants to continue her career when she moves.
Politi’s love affair with Milford was initially tepid. Politi and her young family were forced due to financial reasons to relocate from Fairfield in 1975. She was homesick for Fairfield, and admits Milford did not have the charm it does now.
“It took a couple of years to get used to it all,” she said.
Politi said her first community involvement was getting involved in her son’s Junior Major Baseball team followed quickly by joining the PTA. Her first political experience was helping organize opposition to a proposed housing development near where she lived. She mobilized a petition drive, and inevitably the project was reduced from 50 to 28 units.
Politi said that was a watershed moment for her.
“It proved to me when you get involved…and you put your efforts behind something you can make a difference,” Politi said.
Politi said she wanted to get involved in city government when Mayor Frederick Lisman became mayor. Because of her career as a nurse she thought an appointment to the Board of Health made sense. Instead, she was placed on the Board of Conservation.
Politi, Barbara Milton and Letty Malone formed the city’s Environmental Concerns Coalition.
“I never thought ten years later that group would still be going on,” Politi said.
Politi said she never planned to run for the school board in 1997. She was involved in the PTA, and after a difficult year at high school for her son, she told administrators she felt disconnected. Her comments led to a Parent Faculty Liaison Group at Jonathan Law High School, which is still active.
Politi also helped create the idea of a post prom party at the high schools. Despite some criticism, 200 students showed up on just a $500 budget.
“No one said it would be a success. Everyone said the kids wanted to drink,” Politi said.
The tipping point for her run for Board of Education was when the health curriculum was overhauled at the middle school. Politi and a group of parents protested.
“I felt the kids were learning too much,” Politi said.
She asked for an orientation for parents, and it was at this time several school board members encouraged her to run.
She said her first two years were tranquil, but the second term featured political battles over the chairman’s position. It was during her second-term Politi began to push the theme of respect in the youth.
“We were tired of kids talking back to teachers and a lack of respect on ball fields,” Politi said.
It led to the Respect Task Force, culminating in the Respect Celebration. Each year students at all 15 schools receive awards for those who exhibit respect the best.
“It’s important the community recognizes good behavior,” Politi said. “It’s important to have good character.”
By her third term, Politi assumed the chairman’s title. She was challenged right way as parents at one school raised concerns about the school’s air quality. Politi also said she remembered the board spending too much time on the issue of hiring and firing coaches.
“The phone would ring off the hook more than any other issue,” Politi said. “I did what I felt was the best for the kids.”
She also worked hard to tighten up the dress code including the famous ban on hats. She received so much criticism over the matter that she literally didn’t sleep a wink that first night. But the students complied, and the controversy subsided.
Then the school system’s longtime superintendent left and the board hired Gregory A. Firn.
“I really enjoyed working with Dr. Firn. He was passionate and really cared about the kids and wanted to improve the school system,” Politi said.
Firn’s tenure deteriorated into controversy over his leadership and how he handled a sex scandal involving a basketball coach.
Firn’s contract was bought out by the school board in late 2006. She said she grew frustrated as the “level of nastiness” against Firn increased and led to his departure.
“That broke my heart to see it,” Politi said.
She also led Milford’s Promise, a civil group which helped the city win for the third straight year as one of the top 100 communities in the country for youth to live.
Former PTA Council President Susan Glennon said Politi stood out because of her tremendous advocacy on behalf of children. She said Politi listend to both sides of an issue, and when she was on your side she was with you 100 percent.
“She has got to be one of the most diplomatic people I know and she gave tirelessly of her time, in her own quiet way,” Glennon said.