Like Father Like Daughter: A Heart of Service for Others

By Mary Kovach, Ph.D.

Dr. Gina Petonito grew up in an Italian-American family who proudly celebrated their heritage with large Sunday dinners, family gatherings, and delectable homemade Italian meals. Her familial roots originated from southern Italy, in the Campania region, then they migrated to the United States and settled in the northeast. Here, her family integrated with the local community and flourished. After conducting a grant-based research project on Wooster Square in New Haven, Connecticut, she learned of her father’s inspiration and impact on the next generation. Dr. Petonito’s career has left a legacy succeeding her father’s. She’s impacted student lives for generations and most recently developed a new business to help others’ improve their writing skills – to ensure their voice is heard. In this interview, Dr. Petonito shares her love for her Italian heritage, her research, and her new business.

Dr. Petonito, I know how proud you are to be an Italian American. How did your Italian heritage impact your upbringing?

I grew up in East Haven, Connecticut, a town just east of New Haven, the home of Yale University. At that time, about 75% of the town was Italian-American. My father, Salvatore Petonito owned and operated an Italian-American bakery, Petonito’s Pastry Shop. I remained conscious of all the Italian American holidays and food traditions throughout my young life. For example, we eat zeppole on and around St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), ham and grain pies at Easter, and struffoli at Christmas. Being Italian-American was more than just food. We were all fiercely proud of our heritage. When an Italian-American became successful–like academy award winning actor Ernest Borgnine, who grew up a couple of towns north of us–we considered that as everyone’s success. Big extended families were the norm, and we all looked forward to gathering on holidays. The rooms would buzz with conversation, half in English and half in our Southern Italian dialect. People would hash out ideas right in the open, hands flying, and gesturing. Outsiders thought we were fighting, but we were just having a discussion.

From what area in Italy did your family originate? Do you still have family there with whom you keep in touch and have you visited?

All of my family originated from Campania, and as far as I know, everyone immigrated between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. My paternal grandmother came from Amalfi, like many of the Italian immigrants who lived in New Haven. A local factory recruited from the Amalfi coast, so many people have heritage from the area. My paternal grandfather came from Durazzano. My maternal grandmother came from Benevento, and my maternal grandfather was born in the United States but from Italian parents. His grandmother came from San Lorenzello and his grandfather came from Guardia San Framondi. I visited Italy several times, staying for a month at a time in Ancona, for a couple of summers. I also traveled throughout Italy and made a pilgrimage to Amalfi, which always held a special place in my heart. Although I am just one-quarter, I consider myself Amalfitana.

What is your favorite (or one of your favorite) Italian family traditions that you still celebrate today?

Sadly, my parents have passed away, and our family is scattered throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, the huge and beloved family gatherings are no more. However, the cooking remains. I inherited my mother’s Italian cookbook that was published in 1953, the year she got married. I’m sure she learned to cook from that book because when I make the recipes, they taste just like her dishes. Today, I serve my family pasta at least once a week, and I typically make all kinds of sauces, from primavera to tuna, to meat sauces. For the holidays, I cook something more elaborate, like lasagna or eggplant parmesan. For comfort, I cook some pastina with egg, cheese, and butter. For a quick meal, I make spaghetti aglio e olio.

You personally did some research regarding Wooster Square in New Haven, CT. What inspired you to do this research and what did you learn?

Wooster Square was a thriving Italian American enclave on the east side of New Haven, centered around Wooster Square (also called Columbus Green due to the statue of Columbus that stood there, until recently) and St. Michael’s church, one of the first U.S. churches that catered to Italian Americans. Just north of this community was another neighborhood that centered around St. Patrick’s church and the Hamilton Street School, a public school with nuns as teachers. The New Haven Redevelopment Agency targeted both communities for redevelopment in the late 1950s. The result was the entire St. Patrick’s neighborhood and much of the eastern end of the Wooster Square community was razed to make way for Interstate-91. The remaining buildings were updated and gentrified. Most of the Italian American community was forced to relocate. Many moved east, which is the reason so many Italians lived in East Haven, my hometown. At my father’s funeral in 2011, a man from the old neighborhood approached me and said, “Your father saved many lives.” It was the first time I heard such a sentiment related to my father, and I filed that statement away to explore more fully at a later date. In 2016, I applied for a grant to study redevelopment in Wooster Square. I had no idea what I would find, but through painstaking research an entire community appeared before my eyes. I discovered that my father, along with a priest from St. Patrick’s Church, took a number of young boys under their wings. My father employed these boys in his Grand Avenue bakery and became a role model. They worked hard, but he also made time for fun. He took the boys to the park in the summer, and in the winter, he fashioned a basket with a nail for them to play basketball right inside the bakery. He encouraged the boys to go to college. Several of them enrolled in the local Normal School and became teachers. I arranged to interview three of these mentees, now men in their 70s. It was wonderful hearing all the stories of my father and the positive impact he made on their lives. The Wooster Square and Grand Avenue communities were more than just buildings, but thriving neighborhoods where people worked hard, but found time to uplift each other.

You've had an exciting career. Can you share some of the highlights with us?

I knew I wanted to become a professor of sociology when I was a first-year student at university. I took my first sociology course, and I was hooked. I eventually studied for my Ph.D. at Syracuse University and earned tenure at Western Illinois University before ending my career at Miami University (Ohio). I truly enjoyed my job. I loved teaching students and conducting research in two major subject areas: 1) race and ethnicity and 2) gerontology. A major highlight was when I was elected President of a national professional organization, the Association of Humanist Sociology. I crafted my keynote speech, an interview study of a dozen founding members, into a play. Instead of delivering a lecture, I “performed” the play and enlisted participation from people in the audience. I won several teaching and service awards throughout my career, but the most meaningful were the three awards I won for the diversity programming I developed and implemented with my lovely and talented co-chair at Miami University in Ohio.

What motivated you to create “Writing Your Way,” your new business?

Writing has always been an avocation, and I had the creation a writing business in the back of my mind for several years. Upon retirement, I decide to go “all in” on the business. At the outset, I focused on helping high school students with their Common Application essays. But then my business grew to include mentoring for all kinds of writing. I help clients with business writing, proposal writing, book writing, and other types of academic writing. I developed an on-line course, Self-Edit Academy, where I open my satchel of writing tips and techniques to help clients get started with their writing, establish a writing practice, and edit and polish their writing.

What sets it apart from other online writing programs?

My business tagline is “Your Words, Your Voice, Your Way.” From my years of experience helping students with their writing, I became sensitive to the different ways students write. I take pride in my collaboration with student writers. I assist them in the editing process but strive to retain their voice. Such a service is invaluable for students who wish to write the college application essays, called the Common Application essays. Admissions officers are looking for authentic people for their first-year classes, and students must present their true selves to them. 

If someone is learning more about your program, where can they go to find out more?

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