By Pete Kennedy
Sunday, April 28, will be a busy day for Nancy DiMenco. She’ll be helping to run two events benefiting Italian heritage organizations. First, a meet-the-author event hosted by Friends of Italian Culture, of which she is the first female president in the group’s 50-year history. Then, an Italian movie screening supporting the summer camp of the Delaware Italian American Education Association, whose board she sits on.
DiMenco hopes to hold the events back-to-back at one venue to make it easier for people to attend both.
“I’m one of those people who just have to be busy,” she said. “And I want to spend time on something I can see has a purpose.”
Since retiring about four years ago after teaching English for 25 years in Colonial School District, DiMenco has devoted much of her time to Italian heritage organizations. She is the financial secretary of the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy Giuseppe Verdi Lodge and a member of the New Castle Italian Heritage Foundation.
The retired schoolteacher also finds time to travel and to rock out at concerts.
“I’m an avid rock fan,” DiMenco said. “I’ve seen Paul McCartney the most, probably, and I have tickets for the June 4 show in Philly for the Stones. My husband and son and I are all big music fans.”
DiMenco lives just outside Historic New Castle, near her childhood home. Both sets of grandparents were immigrants from Italy, so she and her brother grew up speaking Italian with them. Her father’s family hailed from Sant’Omero in the Abruzzo region, and her mother’s family came from Ascoli Piceno in the region of Le Marche.
Her father worked at Chrysler, and her mother is a homemaker who worked part time in the school cafeteria. They knew the value of a good education, so they worked hard to put Nancy and her brother through college.
“My neighborhood was close-knit. We always went to my grandmother’s house every Sunday. In fact, my mom still does Sunday dinners. I’m over here now, walking outside,” DiMenco said in a phone interview, as birds chirped in the background.
Even as a child, she loved books and language. At age 16, she spent half a summer in Belgium with a friend whose father was working there, and discovered a zest for traveling.
“They sent a friend to pick me up at the airport. ‘He’ll look like this,’ they said. Of course, I step off the plane, and 10 people look like that,” she said. “But I never had any fear, I was so interested in other countries and cultures.”
She attended the University of Delaware, earning bachelor’s degrees in English and French, and a master’s in English instruction. She taught a little French early on, but the bulk of her career was spent teaching English at William Penn High School.
“Oh, I loved teaching. Every day is different because each student brings something different to the table,” she said. “When you see a student who was struggling really ask for help, listen, get the help, and then shine, that’s always such a pleasure.”
A favorite lesson was when she incorporated music lyrics into a unit on figurative language. It was so well received by students that one of the principals heard about it and sat in on the class.
She also took on additional roles as a tutor, a department chairperson, and a union representative.
Her retirement has allowed her to spend more time concentrating on a lifelong ambition to delve deeper into her roots.
“My parents instilled a deep sense of pride in our Italian heritage, so I’ve always felt a need to promote the Italian culture,” she said.
DiMenco was one of many volunteers who helped bring about the New Castle Italian Immigrant Memorial. As a member of the New Castle Italian Heritage Foundation, she spent hours poring over old Census documents to determine which names belonged on the massive stone slabs at Eighth and Young Streets Park.
“Looking through the Census was a process — hours and hours. The handwriting was indecipherable, and trust me, I had already seen some of the worst handwriting,” she said. “Often, we’d see the same name spelled two or three different ways, and I’d have to contact the family to find out which was correct. You don’t want to misspell something on a monument.” IAH