Former Lynbrook Athletic Director Joanna Commander has long been passionate about helping student-athletes, and her dedication and drive earned her a spot in the Nassau County High School Sports Hall of Fame’s class of 2020.
"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, and was the Sea Cliff/Glen Head Herald Citizen’s first Person of the Year in 2017, 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 days 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 Lynbrook, 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."
Cathy Atria, who was coached by Commander when she played girls’ basketball at Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School, said she formed a bond with her coach that still exists today. Atria played on the varsity team in the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons, and captured the county championship under Commander’s guidance in 1986.
“For anybody who’s been coached by her, and anybody who’s had the privilege of knowing her, she’s always been a Hall of Fame person,” Atria said. “Now it’s just nice that other people have recognized that. This is a woman who spent her whole life making sure that everybody else got the honors that they deserved in all parts of life, so it’s nice to see that come back for her.”
Atria said she can still vividly remember how tough the practices were under Commander, but added that it made the team better. She recalled missing foul shots during games and then having to practice shooting free throws over and over again at practice, or not being allowed to go home until she hit 20 layups in a row. She said it was a full-circle moment for her when she had the opportunity to coach girls’ basketball at Lynbrook when Commander was the athletic director there.
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 High’s athletic director in 1976, she was one of only four female athletic directors in Nassau County.
Vulpis said Commander's success helped pave the way for future female athletic administrators.
Her influence even unexpectedly struck Larry Glenz, a former Lynbrook boys’ varsity lacrosse and junior varsity football coach. When Commander came to LHS as its athletic director, he recalled, he was unhappy because she came from Elmont, which was Lynbrook’s biggest rival, and she was taking over for outgoing Athletic Director Bill Peterson, who was a father figure to Glenz. Though he was skeptical at first, Glenz said, Commander eventually won him over with her commitment.
“I respect her courage,” he said. “It was considered a man’s job when I was younger, and a woman from Elmont was brought in, so that’s not what we were looking for as coaches. And yet, she was as good as any man could be, and she was a pioneer with a lot of courage and a lot of professionalism.”
Commander said there is more to athletics than winning. Sports help children understand relationship building, communication and goal setting in a group. When she attended her Elmont High 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.