Profile: Janet D'Amato, never too busy to serve

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Janet D’Amato, after Mass on a recent Sunday morning, granddaughters having gathered for cookie baking. That’s Katie Kneeland to Janet’s left, Halle Kneeland behind and Alyssa Kneeland to Janet’s right.

It started early for Janet D’Amato.

In eighth grade in Harrington Park, New Jersey, she ran a newspaper drive for a charitable cause Fast forward to this past weekend, here on Shelter Island, found her she overseeing the Historical Society’s “18th Century Christmas” at Havens House. In one way or another, regardless of a family of six children (hers, his and theirs) she has managed to find time to volunteer and give back to the communities she’s worked and lived in.

Born into a family of educators — her mother was a teacher and her father a teacher/administrator at the Bronx High School of Science — she expected to become a teacher as well, but that eventuality was many years off. While a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, she met the men who were to become both her first and second husbands. She married George Kneeland, before her graduation, and moved with him, to Madison, Wisconsin where she graduated in 1967 from Edgewood College of the Sacred Heart, a small Catholic college. There she gave birth to her first child, Virginia, who was born with Down’s syndrome. Her son, George, came 13 months later.

She got involved in what was then an organization called the Association for Retarded Children while working nights and weekends worked nights and weekends to buy a washing machine and dryer. “I had two little children and no way to do the laundry.”

In 1970, the family moved back east, to Philadelphia, to be closer to family and from there to Torrington, Connecticut a few years later, chosen because Connecticut was the state with the best school system for children who were developmentally disadvantaged.

“This was before the federal law came into effect guaranteeing education for all those children, the special ed law,” Janet said. “When I brought Virginia there she had already had a pretty good foundation at a Lutheran school in Philadelphia and I wanted to get her into the mainstream. I had to go to the Board of Education and fight with them but she was mainstreamed through kindergarten and half of first grade. After that a class for the disabled was begun within that school, and she went there then.”

Another child, John, was born four years later.

She was volunteering during this time for a local group doing community service. The organization took clients to medical appointments, provided emergency meals, and shelter for children in abusive situations until their placement could be arranged. The volunteers were trained by one of the local psychiatrists there to do crisis intervention, and take suicide calls.

“The calls were usually in the middle of the night, and often at one or two in the morning I would just have to stay on the phone with that person usually until daylight when one of the emergency services opened and you could get them over there.” She was a life line to many for four years, while serving as president of the organization.
her elevator story

Divorced in 1975, she started working at the University of Connecticut Health Center as an administrative assistant. One day she shared an elevator ride with a man who looked really familiar. “I said, ‘I think I know you from some where,’ and he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never seen you before in my life.’ But I was a pushy broad and I pursued it.”

He was wearing a short, white lab coat and that began to trigger a memory for her. When a student at Wesleyan, she ran the Dining Hall for Women. Her bus boys wore short, white coats. Yes! “That triggered it in my mind and we made the connection.” That was Donald D’Amato, a physicist, in charge of a lab in the department of surgery. They married two years later.

Don brought with him two children, “And then there were five of us. We had another child and that was fun. I always wanted a large family. Virginia was ten, George was nine, Louise, Don’s daughter was seven, Donald Andrew, Don’s son was four” and so was her son, John. “I think of them all as ours,” she said, figuring out ages with difficulty, “so I really have to stop and think. Then we had Robert in 1982.”

At that point Janet was working in hospital administration, still at the University of Connecticut Health Center, as the non-clinical director of psychiatric services, in charge of in- and out-patient services, alcoholism treatment and day treatment.

When her mother died in 1980, there was some inheritance. Thinking about her mother’s values and what she would have liked done with the money, the family decided to build a summer house, large enough for everyone to come home to in some distant future. Donald had spent his summers in Noyack as a child and they continued to vacation there, crossing the “Shelter Island bridge” from Connecticut and the cross-sound ferry. Laughing, she remembered, “Every time we’d come across Shelter Island, we’d say ‘Oh, it’s so pretty here!” and then we’d look for property on the south side.”

Finally the light dawned, agents were contacted and land was bought in the “Deer Park,” where the family now lives. Since 1981, all vacations have been spent here and her children grew up, as the offspring of many second home owners did, working on the Island, every summer, making close and lasting friendships with the children of “year-rounders.”

Son George moved here in 1997 and teaches school in Sag Harbor. He’s married to Lila Piccozzi. John, who’s known on the Island as Woody, has a band, the Realm, which plays around town, often at the Chequit, and has a business on the Island, Miscellaneous Men, a landscaping company. He too lives in Sag Harbor, so Janet has three grandchildren in hailing distance.

During the “second home” years, Janet finally became the teacher she had always intended to be, teaching English for ten years, while still volunteering by cooking meals at the Dorothy Day Women’s Shelter to group home children. She also cooks for the Senior Citizens Center here during the summers. Retiring in 2002, she’s been here full time ever since. Don continued to commute until last year when he joined her.

She’s vice-president of the board of the Historical Society, where Don helps out as well. “I sign up to volunteer and I drag him along. And he’s been patient enough all these years to do it,” she said, laughing. Once here full time, she started “joining things,” and “I just found the best people here, wonderful, wonderful people, wonderful neighbors.” Looking back, she thought they had rarely missed a weekend. “If you love Shelter Island, you love Shelter Island. And we love Shelter Island.”