By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
The West Haven Columbus Day Committee will honor its Italian Couple of the Year at the city’s 20th annual Columbus Day Celebration.
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, will receive the committee’s Italian-American of the Year award Friday at City Hall.
The award is bestowed annually on an Italian resident, or couple, who personifies service in West Haven’s close-knit Italian-American community.
“It is a privilege and an honor to be recognized for this award,” said Francine Coppola, speaking on the couple’s behalf. “West Haven has been our home for 45 years, and we are happy to support the city and its Italian community.”
The Coppolas, who have been married for 45 years, will fete the Italian navigator and observe their ancestry with scores of their closest friends and loved ones, along with an array of dignitaries and descendants of folks from the old country clad in red, white and green.
Accompanied by Italian music, members of the West Haven Italian-American Civic Association will escort the couple to the steps of City Hall at 11:30 a.m. for their special recognition.
A lunch will follow in the First Congregational Church of West Haven’s Fellowship Hall, at 1 Church St. opposite City Hall on the Green.
In the indomitable spirit of Christopher Columbus, the Coppolas are a testament to the promise and greatness of America.
“I am pleased to recognize Mario and Francine as West Haven’s Italian Couple of the Year,” Mayor Nancy R. Rossi said. “Mario’s personal narrative is the essence of the American dream. He immigrated to the United States as a young man. With drive and determination, he established himself as a successful business owner. Francine is a dedicated public servant who committed herself to education. Through a different path, she expressed her commitment to the community by supporting adults who sought to improve their lives through educational advancements.”
Rossi added, “The Coppolas represent all the positive contributions that Italian-Americans make to our economy, our society and to our collective American culture.”
Columbus, a son of Genoa and an experienced seaman, set sail aboard three Spanish ships across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 1492, a bold expedition that pushed back the boundaries of the known world and opened up a new continent for future generations.
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 will present the Coppolas with a citation recognizing their civic-minded contributions and good works — noble qualities that epitomize the city’s top “paisano” and “paisana” of the year.
The couple will receive an Italian flag from Paul M. Frosolone, president of the Italian-American Civic Association, and Josephine Matera, former president of the Italian-American Ladies Auxiliary, as well as a jacket embroidered with their new title, Italian-American of the Year, from Rossi.
The cultural event will include remarks from mayoral Executive Assistant Lou Esposito, the master of ceremonies, and Italian musical selections by Vinnie Carr.
Before an Italian blessing, West Haven High School sophomore Nora E. Mullins will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by a rendition of the Italian national anthem by Liz Levy and a greeting from Rossi.
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 and have two children and four grandchildren.
Their son, Mario F. Coppola, of Orange, is a junior partner at the law firm Berchem, Moses & Devlin and serves as Norwalk’s corporation counsel. Their daughter, Christina Coppola DeCrescenzo, of West Haven, is a special education teacher at Carrigan Intermediate School.
The couple’s name will join the 19 previous Columbus Day recipients on a plaque in City Hall.