By ERIN ROLL and LINDA MOSS>
This week still-stunned friends, family and colleagues continued to mourn and memorialize Mary DeFilippis, the Montclair State University faculty member who was struck and killed by a vehicle on Grove Street last week.
More than 400 people gathered on Tuesday night for what was called a celebration service for DeFilippis at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, where she was eulogized by her friends and colleagues as a warm, witty, whip-smart, professional and caring woman who made a mark wherever she went.
DeFilippis, academic adviser for the MBA program at the university’s Feliciano School of Business, was out for her evening walk last Wednesday, June 7, when she was struck by a vehicle at the intersection of Grove Street and Chester Road, according to Township Police Lt. David O’Dowd. DeFilippis was taken to Mountainside Medical Center, but died of her injuries. The incident happened not far from her home.
“Last Wednesday night our hearts broke,” said the Rev. David Shaw, pastor of Union Congregational, said at the memorial service. “I come here tonight in trust that God’s heart broke, first … Mary’s death is the definition of tragedy.”
At the service the speakers also included one of DeFilippis’ three sons, her childhood friend from their days of mischief-making growing up in the tiny country town of Wynantskill, New York, and Richard Peterson, a professor at the business school. They joined with DeFilippis’ other friends and fellow churchgoers who this past week expressed their grief and shock over her death.
Montclair State honored DeFilippis in a special way last Friday, according to Peterson.
“Something I do not remember ever happening on the campus as a tribute to a university staffer: Our flag [flew] half-staff in honor of Mary,” he said.
At the service DeFilippis’ husband, George, and her three adult sons sat in the front pew of the church. One son, John, briefly addressed the group.
“So, I don’t think I can stand up here for more than 30 seconds,” he said, trying to keep his composure. “If you knew my mom, you know she was always worried about how you’re doing, if you were happy, or not. And if you weren’t, she wanted to know what she could do to make you happy. She wanted to force you to be happy, sometimes.”
That comment prompted laughter from the audience. And while it was obviously a time of grieving, there was laughter at the service several times as the speakers related anecdotes about the deceased Montclair resident, who was 73.
Mickey Clement, in a sometimes halting voice as she grew emotional, said she had known DeFilippis “for a lifetime,” almost 70 years, and she had the most stories to tell.
“There may be people who know Mary better than me … but no one has known her longer or loved her longer than I have,” Clement said. “Picture this skinny little girl with Coke-thick glasses and sausage curls all over her head … Even then she was funny, smart and more importantly, kind … we bonded.”
Clement described DeFilippis as always the smartest girl in the room, but said that “she also had a little attitude going on. … She was a bit of an imp.”
For example, in elementary school DeFilippis found a sly way to stick her tongue out the side of her mouth at her teachers, so they wouldn’t see it.
“And she never got caught, or so we thought,” Clement said. “Years later my mother, who was a teacher in our school, told us that all the teachers knew what she [DeFilippis] was doing. … And they let it slide.”
In fifth grade DeFilippis also decided she was going to marry Mickey Mantle.
“And for the next two years, and I’m not making this up either, she wrote ‘Mrs. Mickey Mantle’ all over her assignment papers and handed them in to her teachers,” said Clement, who noted that the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center was just “down the street” from lifelong Yankee fan DeFilippis.
Peterson said he met DeFilippis when he interviewed her for a job in 2002.
“Within 30 seconds into the interview I realized Mary had to become my secretary,” he said. “Yes, you are probably saying, why did it take you so long to figure that out?”
DeFilippis would eventually end up being an adviser to students at the business school, according to Peterson. Earlier in the day Tuesday, he said, several cleaning employees stopped by his office and asked him to convey their condolences to her family.
“She cared for the faculty, she cared for the staff, and most of all, she cared for the well-being of the students who needed our advice and counsel,” he said. “To say that she was loved and appreciated only begins to describe her influence. In the 15 years I’ve known Mary, there was never a harsh word, a raised voice, or a snide comment. Mary found, and brought out, in each of us the best.”
The university this week announced that it is starting a scholarship fund in memory of DeFilippis.
She lived in Montclair for 34 years, and had many friends in town.
“Mary was the kindest, most gentle lady,” Gregg Monsees said. “She was always upbeat, cheerful, and happy to see you. She always had a smile on, and a wonderful infectious laugh. A new grandmother, she loved to talk about her grandchild.”
Monsees, his family and his former spouse Polly Monsees are all members of Union Congregational, where DeFilippis worshiped. Polly Monsees said she had been friends with DeFilippis for 37 years, after meeting when their respective children were in the church’s nursery school. DeFilippis acted with the Union Congregational Players.
“Many people might find it surprising, she was quite a comedic actress,” Polly Monsees said, adding that DeFilippis could have the audience “in stitches.”
Gregg Monsees called DeFilippis’ death “horrible, an utter shock, senseless,” adding, “It is a tremendous loss to everyone: family, friends, church, work … and Montclair.”
Michele Trevenen was also shaken up by DeFilippis’ death.
“I will so miss catching up with her at church, our breakfast group, and chatting on Polly’s porch,” she said. “I almost lost it in ShopRite this morning as that was one of the places I ran into Mary the most.
DeFilippis began her career at MSU as the secretary of the Hispanic Institute for Applied Psychology in 1993, according to the obituary prepared by MSU. Over the past 24 years she worked in the Psychoeducational Center and the Educational Opportunity Fund Programs before joining the business school in 2002, the obituary said. Her first duty there was as Peterson’s secretary for the Department of Information & Decision Sciences and Management & Information Systems.
DeFilippis loved traveling to Paris and enjoyed summer vacations in Cape Cod with her family, according to her obituary.
“Above all, Mary adored spending time with her family, especially her grandson Dylan,” her obituary said.
After receiving her baccalaureate degree in history from Russell Sage, she studied for her master’s degree in international relations at Columbia University.
The online guest book for the Allwood Funeral Home in Clifton, which handled arrangements for DeFilippis’ burial, was full of comments, many from her work colleagues.
A number of her MSU colleagues posted condolences, including Olga Dembicki.
“I was shocked and saddened to learn of Mary’s passing,” she wrote. “She loved students and children, especially her grandson who she always spoke about so fondly. I was happy to catch up with Mary when we spoke for a short while at work the day she passed away. She was so excited that Mr. Softee was coming on campus, since she loved ice cream. I will truly miss Mary and I am so very sad she is gone.”