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Coach, teacher, athletic director, and now Joanna Commander is a Hall of Famer

Commander is an advocate for women's sports

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Joanna Commander, of Glen Head, who was the Sea Cliff/Glen Head Herald Gazette’s first-ever Person of the Year in 2017, has been inducted into the Nassau County High School Sports Hall of Fame. Commander’s decades of excellence as a teacher, coach and athletic director made her the ideal candidate for its 2020 class, Hall of Fame officials said.

“I feel very blessed,” Commander said. “I feel very acknowledged . . . I love what I do, and to be acknowledged by your peers is just a very, very special thing, so I’m very appreciative of the honor.”

Commander, 72, who lives in Glen Head with her wife, Rosemarie Cartagine, said she pursued a teaching career in health and phys. ed. because she grew up when girls had few chances to succeed in sports. She loved playing any sports she could growing up, especially basketball, softball and field hockey. She was quite good at them, she said, noting her older brother always chose her first for neighborhood pickup games in their native West Hempstead. She also played basketball at Nassau Community College and Southern Connecticut State University, and these day is focused on her golf game. Her goal as a coach and athletic director, she said, was to give the next generations of female athletes the opportunity to feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie through sports.

Dominick Vulpis, assistant executive director of Section VIII Athletics and a member of the Hall of Fame committee, said Commander mentored him when he became the East Rockaway School District athletic director in 1995. At the time, she was director of health, phys. ed. and athletics in the neighboring Lynbrook School District, and he said he admired her dedication to students.

“Throughout the years, what you learned about Joanna was she’s a woman of convictions,” Vulpis said. “She‘s very even-keeled, she’s very objective in her thinking . . . She was always wanting to give to anybody out there who was willing to take, but the biggest thing was it was always about the kids.”

North Shore School District Superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo said Commander’s passion for helping student-athletes was apparent during the three years when he worked with her when she was a North Shore Board of Education trustee. Commander cared as deeply about the physical and emotional well-being of students as she did about athletic success, he said.

“Joanna is not just about the athletics side of athletics,” Giarrizzo said. “Joanna always lives and breathes this notion of wellness and the role that athletics plays in that.”

One of the most significant aspects of Commander’s storied career was her rise to prominence in a male-dominated field. When Commander became Elmont Memorial High School’s athletic director in 1976, she was one of only four female athletic directors in Nassau County. 

Mira Martincich, the former Roslyn School District director of phys. ed. and athletics and a fellow Hall of Famer, has known Commander for more than 30 years. In that time, she said, Commander has advocated for and mentored many female athletes and administrators. 

 Vulpis said Commander’s success helped pave the way for future female athletic administrators.

“Her voice was firm, honest and supported with research and professional knowledge,” Mirantich said. “You could not question her intelligence, passion and fervor. It was backed up by her selfless donation of thousands of hours of service, her deep belief in fairness and her commitment towards doing what was best for kids. When Joanna speaks, people listen.”

“She’s living proof that you can rise to the top just through hard work, good intellect, good instincts and putting kids first,” Giarrizzo said. 

There is more to athletics than winning, Commander said. Sports help children understand relationship building, communication and goal setting in a group. When she attended her Elmont Memorial High School Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year, she reunited with a number of former students, who told her athletics taught them many of their most important life lessons.

“I hope that I would have provided some blueprint for them to be successful in their lives,” Commander said, “to know what it means to be successful, to know what it means to be a part of a team and working toward a common goal. I hope that’s what my legacy is.”