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2019 Person of the Year Video: Mary Kanarvogel

Editor’s Note: The video below was prepared for our 2019 Times Review Media Group People of the Year event in March. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we were forced to postpone and ultimately cancel this year’s event. A special thank you to our event sponsor, People’s United Bank, for helping to make these awards possible each year

Each year, readers send the Reporter nominees for Person of the Year. This year, one Islander rose to the top following a November profile by Julie Lane — School Nurse Mary Kanarvogel.

When the story was posted to Facebook, more than 1,000 people took the time not just to “like” Nurse Mary, as she’s affectionately known, but to write their own tributes to the woman who’s one of the few people who can be said to be the heart of the Island. Nurse Mary is on the job whether it’s serving as the school nurse, a volunteer EMT, a CPR instructor, or through the many other volunteer efforts to which she selflessly gives time.
If there’s a child who needs soothing or a family down on its luck, Nurse Mary is there in her own quiet way to help.

“Nurse Mary is a special part of the community and school,” said School Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ph.D. “She does anything that anyone ever asks her with a smile on her face. She never looks to get credit.”

Mr. Doelger knew her first as a colleague when he taught at Shelter Island School and now as her superintendent. In both roles, he said, she always listens, and always provides thoughtful counsel.

Jersey Girl
That’s nothing new to Mary, who showed signs of the woman she would become when she was growing up in New Jersey with twin sister Jane Ladato, older sister Kathy Mikilitis and three brothers.

Ms. Mikilitis, 12 years older than Mary, recalls telling her mother when she was about to give birth not to bring home any more brothers. Instead, the family grew by two when Mary and Jane arrived. Mary is an hour older than Jane, a fact she never lets Jane forget, said her twin.

“She’s hard to compete with because she was always the leader of the two of us,” Ms. Ladato said.

That Mary cares for so many on the Island is no surprise to either sister.

“I absolutely saw leadership qualities,” whether it was as a cheerleader or a member of many school clubs, Ms. Mikilitis said. “She was very much a people person.”

“She was always about what’s right,” Ms. Ladato said.

Perhaps her wanting to give back has something to do with the fact that Mary had grown up in such a large family and recognized that money was tight. She was industrious and made her own money, Ms. Mikilitis said. Giving back to the community is a lesson Mary taught her own children — Hope and Ian — Ms. Mikilitis said.

Helping hands
When she’s not at school, Mary does field work with the Lions Club, distributing IGA food cards to those in need and helping families with heating expenses and warm coats that their budgets can’t stretch to provide.

Both Nurse Mary and husband Mark Kanarvogel volunteer time as Island EMTs.

Mark Kanarvogel relates a story about a student in Mary’s “quiet room” who was “resting” when another student came in and began mouthing off at the school nurse. The student in the quiet room rose up and confronted the other student, strongly imparting the message that you don’t talk to this woman that way.

“Nurse Mary tends to students on a daily basis at school, but her love and concern for others doesn’t stop there,” said Jacki Dunning, Board of Education clerk and right hand to the superintendent and staff.

“Mary is always looking out for the children, parents and senior citizens in our community,” Ms. Dunning added. “She’s someone who will always go the extra mile when anyone in the community is in need.”

She describes Mary as thoughtful, caring, kind and tireless.

“It’s never about Mary,” Ms. Dunning said. “It’s always about everyone else.”

It’s a badly kept secret among Islanders that Mary is a moving force in ensuring that families without means for holiday gifts receive presents.

Caring for kids
Throughout the year, students know they can count on Mary for “cough drops, cures for tummy aches, Band-Aids for imaginary cuts, water, calamine, their medication, dating advice, compliments, praise, sympathy and compassion,” said Board of Education President Kathleen Lynch.

“Mary is a superhero,” Ms. Lynch added. “She listens, and then she listens some more.”

The board president got a taste of the lives Mary touches when she subbed in the nurse’s office one day.“Where’s Nurse Mary?” students asked forlornly. Ms. Lynch said upon talking to students, she would often find most weren’t there for medical treatment.

“They come to tell her about losing games, fights with friends, breakups and hurt feelings,” Ms. Lynch said. “They come to tell her about winning awards, vacation plans, honor roll and new sneakers. They come because they’re tired and they miss their moms. Mary listens. She does all this — and often in costume — just to make us laugh and brighten our day.”

She described Mary as someone who “has never phoned it in. This and everything else anyone has to say about her will only scratch the surface because she does a zillion other things on the down low,” never looking for credit.

“She is humble, tough, joyful, big-hearted, smart, sensitive, intuitive and hilarious. Mary is mother to all and that is my highest compliment,” Ms. Lynch said.

Similarly, Director of Athletics, Physical Education, Health, Wellness & Personnel Todd Gulluscio said what’s special about Mary is the depth of her caring about everybody.

She goes beyond what’s expected in her job because that’s who she is, Mr. Gulluscio said.

“She puts forth great effort to make everyone happy and help them navigate through whatever their troubles are,” he said. He called her one of the best teammates he has ever had and said her community outreach is “remarkable. Her caring heart drives who she is to each and every one of us.”