By LINDA MOSS
More than 400 people came to a memorial service on Tuesday evening for Mary DeFilippis, who was eulogized by her friends and colleagues as a warm, witty, whip-smart, professional and caring woman who made a mark wherever she went.
The celebration of DeFilippis’s life took place at the Union Congregational Church in Montclair, where she worshiped for years before sustaining fatal injuries after being struck by a vehicle while crossing Grove Street last week, June 7.
“Last Wednesday night our hearts broke,” said the Rev. David Shaw, pastor of the church. “I come here tonight in trust that God’s heart broke, first … Mary’s death is the definition of tragedy.”
The attendees at the hourlong service included a large contingent from Montclair State University and its Feliciano School of Business, where DeFilippis was part of the faculty as an adviser.
The speakers included not only Shaw but one of DeFilippis’s 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.
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 flied half-staff in honor of Mary,” he said.
DeFilippis’s 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. In fact, Clement said, she arranged the blind date where DeFilippis met her future husband.
“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, DeFilipps started a “business” of selling “pin-up” drawings of girls to boys, charging a nickel for a girl in a one-piece swimsuit, a dime for a girl in a two-piece and a quarter for a bikini-clad girl, according to Clement. But DeFilippis was put out of business when a fifth-grade boy started selling drawings of girls with no bathing suits on, Clement said, prompting laughter from the group.
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 and Learning Center was just “down the street” from life-long 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, and she mentored many women, according to Peterson. Earlier in the day, 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 in memory of DeFilippis.
In her remarks, Clement described DeFilippis as a good athlete who was a great ice skater, as well as being a talented actress and singer, nabbing her first role in fifth grade doing the part of Maria in the Nutcracker Suite operetta.
“She really had a beautiful singing voice,” Clement said.
And while at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, DeFilippis “brought down the house with her hilarious performance of Miss Gouch in ‘Auntie Mame,’” according to Clement.
Shaw recalled running into DeFilippis at Sunrise Bagels with his children.
“She told me after we moved to Montclair and saw us in there early one Saturday morning that clearly, with a bright smile on her face, that we had excellent taste,” he said.
There was a reception after the service with refreshments and food, in a room where posters and stations with photos of DeFilippis and her family over the years were set up.
The family, including son John, were at the reception. Earlier during the service he thanked attendees and the community for the kindness they had shown after his mother’s death.
“Your generosity has meant a great deal to my family, and we would like to thank everyone for what you’ve done and for coming tonight,” he said.