Carolyn Comitta, Mayor of West Chester, speaks to VISTA today about growing up in West Chester and moving to West Bradford when she was thirteen, transferring to West Chester College after her freshman year at Muhlenberg, the influence Bill Scott and Madeleine Wing Adler had on her rise to the Mayor’s chair in West Chester and the opportunities she sees for the borough in the New Year.
Where did you grow up Mayor Comitta?
I was born and in Buffalo, New York. My mother was from Toronto and my father from Malden, Massachusetts. They met when they were both on vacation in Lake George and moved to Buffalo because that’s where my father worked.
When I was two years old, my father was hired by DuPont in Wilmington and we moved to the Merryweather Farms development in West Goshen.
I went to Fern Hill Elementary School and then to Stetson Jr. High before we moved to West Bradford in the Downingtown School District when I was in eighth grade. I ended up graduating from Downingtown High School in 1970.
Did you have any siblings?
I had two younger siblings. I had a brother who was 2 1/2 years younger than me and I have a younger sister.
What memories do you have of growing up in West Goshen or Downingtown?
Since its January, I remember skating on a pond where the East High School football field now is. Skating on the pond was like going on a winter safari. I had my sky blue ice skates with a gray fur collar, a favorite Christmas gift from my parents, over my shoulders as I walked to the lake with my friends. The big kids would have a fire pit, and we would toast marshmallows and drink hot chocolate. I had my first and only cigarette when I was eleven at that pond! I’m told the pond is still there but no longer as large as it was when I was a kid.
I also remember how the Merryweather Farms development was just full of kids and how we played all sorts of games; baseball, kickball, tag, board games, hide & seek. We did everything with everybody outside all the time.
Was the move to West Bradford and the Downingtown School District difficult?
Everything is difficult when you’re thirteen! I had not had a good 7th-grade year, and Downingtown placed me in classes that matched my 7th-grade academic performance. My math teacher saw I had potential beyond my placement and started me on an Algebra self-study course. I did well and at the end of my 8th-grade year got the distinguished student award from the American Legion . That school and award helped me in many significant ways. I’ll always be grateful.
Did you play any sports at Downingtown?
I didn’t have the ride support I needed to get to practices, so I didn’t do any team sports. I did gymnastics instead. I had taken a few dance classes from a neighbor, and I enjoyed the fluidity of movement and dance. I made up my routines in my backyard. I had a floor routine and a routine on the Parallel Bars and Balance Beam. I wasn’t great at it, but I had a lot of fun.
I also participated in the musical productions in high school. In my senior year, I played the part of Miss Adelaide in “Guys & Dolls.” I didn’t have a great singing voice, but I was loud, and could carry a tune, so it worked!But my favorite role was being the Jewish mother in “Bye, Bye Birdie” in tenth grade! That was an awesome role!
Did you have any part-time jobs when you were in high school?
Every summer & Christmas break I worked at Jamesway in Thorndale where the Giant is now. Over time, I was promoted from the cash register to the customer service desk.
What lessons did you learn at Jamesway that you use today?
Jamesway had a diversity of clients, customers, and workers. Up to this point in my life, I hadn’t had much experience with people who lived or looked differently than I did. Jamesway was my first experience working with people who were different from me. At first, I was afraid and wasn’t sure I would be accepted. In the end, my coworkers were fantastic mentors. Their heart, intellect, and work ethic were great examples.
You had good grades in high school. Why did you decide to go to Muhlenberg for college?
I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school and a girl two years ahead of me at Downingtown, whom I idolized and who wanted to be a teacher like me, went to Muhlenberg, so I looked at Muhlenberg too. My thinking at the time was if Muhlenberg is good enough for the girl I idolized, it’s going to be great for me!
Even though I ended up transferring to West Chester University after my first year, I had a great Freshman year at Muhlenberg. My roommate from Sweden and I have remained friends and have worked on environmental initiatives at the United Nations together.
Was transferring to West Chester a good move for you?
It was a very good move for me on many, many levels. I got a degree in Elementary Education and met some wonderful people who I’ve worked with in West Chester.
What did you do after graduation?
I got a job in the Octorara School District and developed their special and gifted education programs.
After my children were born I left teaching and in addition to working with my husband in our business, I became involved with a non-profit, NGO at the UN focused on health and environment. I have served on that Exec Board for over 25 years and have attended several international conferences in that role. Since 1992, I have arranged for over 2000 Chester County high school and college students to attend our annual conference at the United Nations, with more attending this year.
Who saw potential in you and helped you become Mayor of West Chester?
Two people; Bill Scott, who serves on West Chester Borough Council and Madeleine Wing Adler, past President of West Chester University.
Bill Scott has an impressive legacy of recruiting new people to run for Council here in West Chester. Bill approached me several times to run for Borough Council. Since my husband and I have a town planning business, I know a lot about what makes a town like West Chester work. My kids, however, were still in school, and I didn’t feel that I could take the time to serve in an elected office, so I kept putting Bill off.
When Barbara McIlvain-Smith decided to step down from Borough Council to run (successfully) for State Rep, Bill called me again. Even though it was last minute, he wanted me to run for Barbara’s vacant seat. After reminding me both my kids were now in college and out of the house, Bill informed me I was out of excuses, and he needed my help. I talked and thought seriously for several days and then told him I would run.
Madeleine Wing Adler was President of West Chester when I was a council member. There was a contentious issue of a new parking garage at the edge of a West Chester neighborhood in my third year on Council . I wasn’t able to completely resolve that conflict, but I did form a nice relationship with Madeleine and set the stage for regular university/neighborhood meetings.
That day, at the end of our meeting, she asked me, “What will you do next, Carolyn? Run for Mayor?” I replied , “Madeleine, why would I want to be mayor? The mayor doesn’t really have any power in West Chester – the council does.” Without missing a beat, she responded, “Well that depends on who’s mayor.”
She went on to explain how her father had been mayor of his town for 30 years. She said,” I can tell you a mayor has a tremendous opportunity to bring people together to improve the community.” . She thought I could do the same for West Chester.
Turns out Madeleine was right! As mayor, I have had lots of success in bringing people together to improve our community. It is a joy and an honor serving as West Chester’s mayor.
What challenges and opportunities do you see in the New Year?
We have a new Borough Council and a relatively new borough manager. Younger members of council are interested in using technology to bridge the digital divide and leveraging social media to increase civic engagement. community We are finishing our Comprehensive and Plan update and will begin some much needed Borough Hall renovations.
I’m very excited about starting the update for the West Chester Police Department Strategic Plan. Thanks to former Mayor Dick Yoder, the police department is the only department in the Borough that has a strategic plan. The borough is changing and policing is changing. We need to take a look at how we can make our exemplary police department even better than it already is.
Over the next year, we’re going to have 1,100 or so new non-student residents moving into the borough’s town center as new apartment complexes are completed. We’re going to have more people who can walk around town, enjoy the festivals and events, contribute time and talent and participate in government. That’s very exciting!
I am also very excited about the Uptown Bravo Theater bringing live entertainment and productions into the Borough’s town center. With the old Armory on High Street bought and settled, renovations can begin. I am their cheerleader and supporter, and help whenever I can.
The opening of the Center for Community Solutions at West Chester University is also an exciting development I’m looking forward to in 2016. By opening all the doors and windows of our University to the community, the Center gives us a chance to leverage the University resources to strengthen our community in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Mayor Joe Riley, who just stepped down from being Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina for over 40 years, told me the key to being a good mayor was listening. We all have ideas and preferences, but as a civic leader the key, is to listen to the people we serve.
Top photo courtesy of Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.