When Johanna Pontillo makes her once-a-month trips to Atlantic City, she always “bets the max” on the casino poker machines.
“If you do, you get the full prize when you win,” she said.
And so it was with her 45-year career as a paraprofessional in the New York City public school system.
Pontillo gave it the max, retiring July 1 at age 92. The full prize this time was a rewarding career in which she touched countless lives and made her mark at Franklin D. Roosevelt HS in Brooklyn.
“She is a very funny lady, with plenty of stories about her philosophies of life,” said retired school counselor Sheila Sorokoff. “She has a fantastic outlook and a wonderful, caring way with the students.”
Pontillo gets up every morning at 4:30 a.m. and, until her final work day, would drive herself to FDR in the Mapleton section from her home in Marine Park, her omnipresent smile immediately lighting up the building upon her arrival.
“The kids keep you young,” she said.
Volunteering at her own children’s school led to her start with the then-city Board of Education in 1974, when special education was run out of a central office. When that office closed in 1978, she was offered a job as a paraprofessional at FDR, where she helped establish the special ed program for 25 students along with three teachers and two other paras.
“That was our complete special ed staff back then,” she said.
Through the years, Pontillo’s responsibilities were many, from working one-on-one with students to meeting them at the bus each morning to bring them to class.
After arriving early each day and holding court with colleagues, she would suddenly stop and say, “Well, I have to go down to get my babies,” Sorokoff recalled.
Brigida Venza was taken under Pontillo’s wing when she started her 25-year career as a para in 1979.
“She was like a mother hen,” Venza said on June 20 at a send-off for Pontillo that packed the teachers’ cafeteria. “I was a new para and she showed me the ropes. She’s a very loving, giving, unselfish person.”
Jorge Mitey, an IEP teacher, said he will miss the tin full of candy Pontillo always kept by her desk for the students. “She has embraced us all and guided us,” Mitey said. “And she loves the kids.”
Pontillo said she also made a habit of advising new UFT members to “invest in the TDA (Tax-Deferred Annuity) program.”
Pontillo has been a widow since 1986, but one of her two sons, Vincent, has been her colleague at FDR, where he teaches woodworking and computer applications. He will soon follow his mom into retirement after more than 32 years as a teacher.
“She’s always on the run, always wants to do something,” said Vincent, “but she spends a lot of her time cleaning her apartment.”
Johanna said she will take her retirement “one day at a time.” She will take her trips to Atlantic City, attend mass on Sundays at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands and remain active in her church group. “I’m also going to join the Retired Teachers Chapter,” she said.
But perhaps most of all, she’s looking forward to meeting other FDR retirees at their regular dinner get-togethers.
“I don’t know yet where they hold them,” Johanna said. “I could never go because I wasn’t retired.”