By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Mayor Nancy R. Rossi presented Mario and Francine Coppola with matching jackets embroidered with their new title, Italian-American of the Year, as part of festivities observing West Haven’s 20th annual Columbus Day Celebration on the steps of City Hall Friday.
Mario G. Coppola, who owned and operated Mario & Joseph Men’s Shop on Campbell Avenue for 30 years, and Francine Iannotti Coppola, former director of West Haven Adult Education, are the second couple to receive the award after Giuseppe and Theresa DePalma in 2016.
The Coppolas, who have been married for 45 years, were showered with words of praise from Rossi for “enriching the proud legacy and vibrant culture of our Italian-American community.”
At the 45-minute ceremony, the couple received a General Assembly citation from state Reps. Dorinda Borer, D-115, Charles J. Ferraro, R-117, and Michael A. DiMassa, D-116, on behalf of the city’s delegation. They also received an Italian flag from Paul M. Frosolone, president of the West Haven Italian-American Civic Association, and Ellen Marazzi, former president of the West Haven Italian-American Ladies Auxiliary.
The West Haven Columbus Day Committee recognizes an Italian resident, or couple, each year who personifies service in the city’s close-knit Italian-American community.
As the sound of Italian music filled the air during the late morning cultural event in honor of the Italian explorer, the Coppolas saluted their heritage with dozens of their closest friends and loved ones, along with array of dignitaries, including North Haven First Selectman Michael J. Freda, and descendants of folks from the old country clad in red, white and green.
Mario Coppola, born in the town of San Salvatore Telesino in the province of Benevento, Italy, immigrated to the United States at age 16 with his father, Francesco, in 1961.
After settling in West Haven, they opened Coppola Tailor Shop at Elm Street and First Avenue in 1963.
Three years later, Coppola was drafted in the Vietnam War. He served stateside for several years in the Army Reserve and trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Lee, Virginia.
In March 1972, Coppola and his longtime friend and business partner, Joseph DeFrancesco, established the first Mario & Joseph Men’s Shop in Branford. Four years later, they opened the West Haven shop, at 495 Campbell Ave., with both locations thriving for many years.
Coppola, a respected business owner, closed the West Haven store in 2006 after DeFrancesco retired. He closed the Branford store when he retired in 2015.
Coppola said he met DeFrancesco while taking an English class at West Haven Adult Education, the same program Francine Coppola led years later for two decades.
Along with the Adult Education program, which is mostly based at West Haven High School, she was the English as a second language bilingual director and the fine arts coordinator for the Board of Education. She retired last year.
She also served as president and vice president of the Connecticut Association for Adult and Continuing Education, or CAACE.
Rossi also presented a citation to the Coppolas, who were accompanied by their son, Mario F. Coppola, of Orange, and their daughter, Christina Coppola DeCrescenzo, of West Haven. They were also joined by their four grandchildren.
Before an Italian blessing from Michael Abbott, director of ministry at Notre Dame High School, Liz Levy sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Italian national anthem, “II Canto degli Italiani.” The renditions were followed by a greeting from mayoral Executive Assistant Lou Esposito, the master of ceremonies.
Rossi then delivered heartwarming remarks about the Coppolas, saying, “Your extraordinary story is treasured by our city,” and “your fearless spirit and inspiring good works are a testament to the promise and greatness of America.”
Francine Coppola, born in New Haven and raised in Hamden, is the daughter of an immigrant father and the granddaughter of immigrant paternal grandparents from the province of Caserta, Italy.
In 1907, overcoming hardship and strife through the everlasting values of strength and sacrifice, faith and family, her father, Mario Iannotti, then a child, and his parents left their home in the town of Piedimonte Matese seeking a better life in America, settling in New Haven before later migrating to Hamden.
The Italian parents of her New Haven-born mother, Rose Onofrio, hailed from the village of Faicchio in the province of Benevento.
After graduating from Hamden High School in 1968, Francine Coppola earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education from Southern Connecticut State University. She also received a sixth-year diploma in administration and supervision from SCSU.
Her degrees and skills propelled her to a lengthy and rewarding career that began in 1973 teaching special education in West Haven. Her unwavering commitment to nurturing young minds became a hallmark for her success as an educator and administrator in the years that followed.
Mario and Francine Coppola’s propensity for community service includes serving as ambassadors of their proud heritage.
They are long-standing members of the San Leucio Society of New Haven. He served a stint as vice president and she as secretary-treasurer.
He was grand marshal of the 2011 Greater New Haven Columbus Day Parade in West Haven and is a member of the Italian-American Civic Association.
He is also a longtime member of the West Haven Rotary Club, having served on its board of directors, and is a former recipient of the Jimmy Fund award.
She served on the board of directors of the West Haven Community House.
The Coppolas live on Botte Drive in West Shore.
The couple’s name will join the 19 previous Columbus Day recipients on a plaque in City Hall.