Occhino-Pilawa says goodbye to Fulton

By Ashley M. Casey

School’s out forever for Rosemary Occhino-Pilawa.

After more than 40 years of living in Fulton and working with local schools, the former educator and school board member is bidding the city adieu as she prepares to move to Onondaga County with her new husband, engineer Donald Pilawa.

Occhino-Pilawa has resigned her position on the Fulton City School District board of education, where she has served since 2009.

She announced her resignation in a letter read aloud to her fellow board members at the March 11 school board meeting. She attended her final board meeting March 25, and her last day of service is March 31.

Occhino-Pilawa said her goals for her time on the board have been “to make a positive difference” and “to be transparent.”

“If I had just touched the life of one child (while) serving on the board, it will be positive,” Occhino-Pilawa told The Valley News.

Over her four decades in Fulton, Occhino-Pilawa has touched many lives. She taught at the now-defunct Erie Street and Phillips Street schools, Fairgrieve and Granby. She retired in 2003 after spending 19 years as a first-grade teacher at Granby. Her first husband was an educator as well.

Occhino-Pilawa said she ran for school board after her first husband, longtime teacher and the Hannibal district’s Fairley Elementary School principal Dr. Joseph Occhino, passed away in 2008.

“I needed to give back to the community that welcomed me and my husband and my children with open arms,” she said.

Originally from Gloversville, N.Y., Occhino-Pilawa was a reluctant transplant to Fulton in 1973.

“I was living a charmed life in Vermont, my first love,” she said of the state where she spent her college years. Occhino-Pilawa received her bachelor’s degree from Castleton State College in 1968 and did graduate work at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

The late Dr. Occhino took a job at the Erie Street School in Fulton. The Occhinos agreed to give Fulton a try for three years and planned to return to Vermont.

“When the three years came to closure, he said, ‘We’ll put our house on the market,’ and I said, ‘If you want to leave, you’ll have to leave by yourself!’” Occhino-Pilawa recalled. “Those three years have turned into 41.”

Because New York state did not honor Occhino-Pilawa’s Vermont special education certification, she became a substitute teacher and eventually an elementary school teacher. Her husband built his career as an educator and spent 27 years as principal of Fairley in Hannibal.

Dr. Occhino had been a strong supporter of the Ronald McDonald House, so to honor his memory, Occhino-Pilawa coordinated a recyclable “pop tab” collection to benefit the charity.

“It was so phenomenal,” Occhino-Pilawa said of the student and community response.

That year, the Fulton district collected more than 1,000 pounds of tabs from soda cans and soup cans. The donation was worth more than $600. McDonald’s sent Ronald McDonald to the winning school — Fairgrieve, with more than 500 pounds of pop tabs — to present a program on bullying and safety.

“Helping others is really what life is about,” Occhino-Pilawa said.

The district’s teachers’ association presented Occhino-Pilawa with a community award at its banquet that year.

“It’s very dear to my heart because my late husband endorsed the McDonald foundation,” she said.

The Occhinos raised three sons: Martin, Alan and Jason. Martin now lives in Connecticut, but his two brothers remain in Oswego County.

“This is a great place to raise children,” Occhino-Pilawa said. “If you ask (my sons), ‘Where is home?’ they’ll say it’s Fulton.”

Upon her marriage to Donald Pilawa Nov. 9, 2013, Occhino-Pilawa chose her new last name to reflect her family pride, both old and new.

“I hyphenated the name because of my three sons and I have seven grandchildren who all carry the Occhino name, and I’m very proud of it,” she said.

“I have enormous anxieties about departing,” Occhino-Pilawa said of leaving the city she’s called home since 1970.

At her final board meeting, her colleagues expressed their sadness and well wishes too.

“You are an inspiration,” said Christine Plath, whose daughter worked with Occhino-Pilawa as a student teacher.

“She made her the teacher she is today in Hannibal,” Plath said of Occhino-Pilawa’s guidance.

“You added laughter, candor and a heart of full dedication,” David Carvey said. “You will be sorely missed.”

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