Frank Pignataro, who touched the lives of many young athletes, stressed the importance of sportsmanship and winning with grace. He used his passion for sports to shape student athletes in East Rockaway.
“Sportsmanship was the biggest thing for him,” recalled his son, Daniel, whom Frank coached in baseball. “Sportsmanship and playing to have fun. We all want to win, but … what you’re there for is to have fun.”
Pignataro died suddenly on Nov. 25 at age 69, but his impact on East Rockaway will be a lating one. On March 27, he became the 12th person — and the first since 2012 — to be inducted into the East Rockaway Community Hall of Fame at a special ceremony that was part of Spring Sports Tip-off Night at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. The Hall of Fame acknowledges community members who dedicated their time and energy to promoting fair play.
Pignataro worked for a steamship company, Atlantic Container Line, until he retired in 2010. There he met his wife, Dorothy, who was a secretary, and they married on May 13, 1972. They had six sons: Daniel, Frank, Anthony, Matthew, Dominick and Andrew.
“From the day I met him, he made me so happy until the day he died,” Dorothy said. “We never had problems; we never fought. We just had a wonderful life. A lot of people would say that this was a well-deserved honor for him.” Dorothy said her husband stressed the importance of youth sports because he believed it kept children out of trouble.
When the Pignataro family moved to Columbia Street in East Rockaway in 1983, Frank got involved. He started coaching baseball in the St. Raymond’s Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League. He also joined the St. Raymond’s school board and served as a Eucharistic minister in the church. He became a member of the Monsignor Walsh Council of the Knights of Columbus, and remained with the organization until his death. Having served as a sergeant in the Air Force from 1964 to 1968, he was a member of the East Rockaway Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Frank Pignataro was active in all parts of our community,” said Dom Vulpis, the director of physical education, health and athletics at ERJSHS. Vulpis added that when he was initially offered his job at the school, he knew nothing about East Rockaway. A friend recommended that he contact Pignataro, who told him about the village during a lengthy phone conversation.
“Frank knew me from nowhere,” Vulpis said. “I didn’t know Frank. I never met Frank before this. An hour later on the phone with him, I knew everything there was to know about East Rockaway, and I knew one thing: This was the place I wanted to be.”
At the ceremony, Vulpis presented a slideshow featuring photos of Pignataro through the years, accompanied by Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” He gave the Pignataro family a certificate acknowledging the induction, and said that a commemorative plaque sporting Pignataro’s photo would hang in the gym.
“This is a great honor, because it shows that he did make his mark on the village to a lot of kids and a lot of people growing up,” his son Daniel said.
Vulpis praised Pignataro for his work in the community, which included a 12-year tenure as the recreation director at St. Raymond’s. In that role, Pignataro instilled the values of winning and sportsmanship, and shared his knowledge.
“My father always mentioned that sportsmanship was extremely important to him,” said his son Matthew. “That everybody behaved themselves, conducted themselves appropriately, because it is all about the kids … I don’t want you to think that he didn’t feel that winning was important, because it is. … It was about winning, but about winning gracefully and fairly, and without overzealousness where the message is lost.”
As recreation department director, Pignataro strengthened the local CYO and basketball programs. He also helped start the East Rockaway flag-football league, and helped create what is now the East Rockaway Baseball League. With inspiration from his sister-in-law Joan, who has Down syndrome, he created the East Rockaway Recreation PALS program, which arranges get-togethers for special-needs adults.
Among the distinguished guests at the induction ceremony were Mayor Bruno Romano and his board of trustees, School Superintendent Lisa Ruiz, East Rockaway High School Principal Joseph Spero, Hempstead Town Councilman Anthony D’Esposito and Town Supervisor Anthony Santino, who said Pignataro was “the epitome of what community service is all about.”
In 2015, Pignataro became the director of the East Rockaway Charles H. Formont Senior Center, where he helped membership grow. Even though he stepped down as recreation director in 2005, people who he influenced would still come to him to thank him, Dorothy recounted, saying that even if Frank didn’t always initially recognize them because they were older, he would reconnect with them.
Dorothy said that her hsuband’s spirit lives on in their six sons — some of whom he coached and mentored when they were children — and in the student athletes he once coached.
“He loved his kids and loved his boys,” she said. “There’s a little bit of him in each one of them.”