Herald Person of the Year

Joanna Commander is Sea Cliff-Glen Head's first-ever Person of the Year

Commander: ‘Every kid deserves an equal shot’


For Joanna Commander, retirement hasn’t exactly meant ceasing work.

A former teacher and coach, Commander has a résumé that spans more than 40 years in health and phys. ed. In 2003, she retired from her position as director of health, physical education and athletics in the Harborfields School District in Greenlawn. But afterward, she didn’t fill her days with cooking and gardening — though she acknowledges that those hobbies help her unwind.

Given her continuing contributions to the North Shore School District, you could argue that she never retired. It is for this reason that the Herald Gazette has named Commander — a two-term Board of Education trustee and founding force behind the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse — its first-ever Person of the Year.

A native of West Hempstead, Commander, 69, moved to Glen Head in 2006 with her wife, Rosemarie Cartagine, a North Shore High School graduate. What followed was an immersion in North Shore district athletics. She got involved in the boosters club, and coached the middle school’s girls’ basketball team, despite being a new face in the community.

“As the parents started to go to the games and watch her coach, all of a sudden there was this conversation of. ‘Who is this?’ This person knows what she’s doing,” Cartagine said. “They took notice of her skill level and her way with the kids.”

Commander, whose lifelong passion has been to provide children with safe and healthy environments, ran for the North Shore Board of Education in May 2014, won a seat, and was re-elected to a second term this June. “I’m sitting there watching the moderator at a Meet the Candidates night, and I’m saying, ‘I could do this in my sleep,’” she recalled of her first run at the board.

Sitting on the board, she said, is a challenge, as trustees deal with many different people with many different agendas. “I’m a person who’s opinionated, but I also think I’m a good listener,” she said, “and my experience in having to bring people together to some central place and some mediated space has been helpful to me.”

She filled the seat of Amy Beyer, who had sat on the board for 12 years. Beyer said she believed that Commander’s ability to connect with people helped her succeed. “She’s a leader who’s not timid and has a lot to offer,” Beyer said. “She cuts across different segments of the community.”

“She’s an extraordinary board member,” said former North Shore Superintendent Edward Melnick, “who understands the board’s role as being the policy-making body of the district.”

During her first term, Commander worked on a variety of committees focusing on health and safety. While passing action items during board meetings, she usually raised her hand before the board president had a chance to look up from the agenda.

With Melnick, she reviewed and revised the district’s health curriculum. She advocated for anti-bullying and anti-hazing policies, and brought awareness of the so-called female athlete triad — a syndrome she had researched at Harborfields with a group of 40 doctors and coaches — to North Shore. The female athlete triad comprises three interrelated conditions often seen in teenage girls: energy deficiency brought on by eating disorders, menstrual disturbances and low bone density, or osteoporosis.

“I was very fortunate during the course of my career to be on a consortium that wrote state guidelines to raise consciousness of this issue,” Commander said.

She has also served on athletic advisory and policy committees, and it is clear that she takes great pride in district athletes’ accomplishments. Many of them were recognized at a recent Board of Education meeting, as Commander beamed. “I so cherish just listening to their accomplishments — it’s just so wonderful,” she said. “All the kids train in this community, so I see those kids running the whole fall. I kind of look after them.”

“I really believe that if you’re an athlete at North Shore High School, you should be treated the same, and the expectations of an athlete should be the same whether you’re a runner or a tennis player,” she added. “I think that’s what makes a strong program. Every kid deserves an equal shot.”

She has brought this concept to her latest project: re-establishing an anti-drug coalition in the district. Earlier this year, Melnick revived the Coalition for a Drug Free North Shore, which gained little traction in the community when it was first established in 2013.

He presented the challenge to Commander at a board meeting last January, and unofficially appointed her the liaison between the coalition and the community. What happened in between that meeting and the formation of the renamed North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse was, she said, a very valuable experience.

“I was learning how to build the coalition while trying to get my head around why this was happening in the community,” she said of the ongoing opioid crisis. But she was also battling what appeared to be public indifference to, or denial of, the problem. “I had a feeling that there was something disconnected. I spoke to a lot of people who said, ‘You’ll never get this off the ground,’ and ‘People won’t buy into it.’”

But they did. More than 100 people came to the coalition’s first meeting in April, and over the summer, Commander worked with attorney Marty Glennon, another adviser to the group, to assemble a board of directors, write bylaws and formulate engaging programming.

“North Shore has one of the higher mortality rates per capita on Long Island in terms of drug overdoses,” Glennon said. “There’s resistance in recognizing a problem like this, but when Joanna gets ahold of something, she doesn’t let go.”

Rob Mansfield, a coalition member, said that Commander was tireless in her efforts to get the organization off the ground. “You have all these parents running around crazy that their kids are dying … and she just calms the room, and commands it,” he said.

There was an outpouring of support at a coalition event in October that featured two guest speakers, and, Commander recalled, “I almost came home and cried that night. I just felt like this was really going to happen. There was just a tremendous sense of satisfaction and thankfulness to the community.”

For Commander, who has no children of her own, there is no greater joy than providing children with the love and guidance she never received herself. Heading the coalition, and creating a safe haven for young people in the North Shore community, she said, has enriched her life in ways that she said nothing else ever has. “I had some traumatic experiences myself as a child,” she said, preferring not to delve into the details, “so it really became a mission for me to give my life to the profession in terms of helping children be healthy, be well, be safe, and feel nurtured.”