Move over, Tracy Samantha Lord. Meet the leading lady of a real “Philadelphia Story.” Her name is Joanne Natale Spigonardo (CGS’81). This is a tale that is short on Main Line mannerisms, long on hard-working immigrant ethos, and made possible by a network of Ivy League connections that intersect on Locust Walk.
While human-resources types may like to talk about the workplace as “community” and it’s great to walk across campus and stop to chat with people you know, for Spigonardo, whose father, sister, brother, son and nephew have worked and studied at Penn, it’s all relative.
Q. What was your first job at Penn?
A. It was in the School of Social Work. I worked for Dean Schumaker. I was her secretary. It was a great job. I grew up in Southwest Philadelphia. I went to West Catholic Girls High School. My first job out of high school was at Provident National Bank. I would type international bills in Italian. I was born in Italy and I always wanted to cultivate my language skills. But it was such a boring job and they weren’t going to pay for my education.
Q. What brought you to Penn?
A. My sister Teresa began working at Penn in 1969. She started as a secretary. By ’72, she was assistant director of annual giving. She told me about the job in the School of Social Work. I knew about the excellent tuition reimbursement. At that time, in the early ’70s, not as many women went to college as they do now, and depending on your ethnic background and your economic status, it was difficult. I came to work here because I could go to school part-time. In those days it was called getting in through the back door. I would have never probably been accepted to Penn at that time. I was an A student but my SAT scores were not great.
Q. Did you get your degree?
A. I got my degree in 1981 in Italian Renaissance Literature and History. I left Penn the following year to work for Alitalia Airlines.
Q. When did your father come to work here?
A. My dad worked at Penn from 1975 to 1988. He was one of the lead gardeners. He was in charge of the College Hall area. He was a stonecutter in Italy. He had worked on beautiful churches there. That was his profession.
When he came here after World War II, he worked for the Philadelphia Gas [Works] as a construction worker. When he was in his mid-50’s he was laid-off and it was very difficult for him to find a job. I was working in the facilities department, which was called Buildings and Grounds. I asked if they had a place for my dad. He had always had a garden at home—he had tomato plants and zucchini plants. Coming from a rural hometown, even if it isn’t your profession, you are good at that stuff—to this day, we have roses and beautiful flowers.
They gave him a chance—he came in as a temporary and he worked out so well they hired him full-time. Then, as now, the union was involved and they had to follow all the procedures. He really proved himself.
My sister, my father, my brother and I were all here in the late 70’s. My sister left after 10 years when she was expecting her first child and her husband was relocated to North Jersey. Today, she’s a sales representative for Soski Piroeff, Inc.
Q. And your brother?
A. My brother Anthony came to Penn to work as a helper in the steamfitter’s shop. He had to go through a five-year training period. He’s been here for 27 years. He’s the Operating Engineers shop steward for Local 835.
Q. Now it’s the next generation’s turn on the Walk?
A. I came back in 1999 when Alitalia closed their Philadelphia office. My son was a freshman in high school and I was interested in the tuition reimbursement again. I came to work as an administrative assistant and after a year they bridged my time, so I am considered to have been here 14 years. My son was accepted to Penn in the School of Engineering and now he’s transferred to the College where he’s a sophomore this fall.
My nephew, my brother Anthony’s son, is starting his sophomore year at Wharton.
We have been very fortunate and very blessed and I am very grateful to Penn. I act as a mentor here at Wharton. The first thing I tell [new employees] is you are in such a wonderful environment. Even if you just take one class—something that you are interested in—not necessarily for a degree, it is wonderful to be able to enrich yourself.
Q. Penn has changed enormously since you started working here. What is the biggest difference you’ve seen?
A. In the ’70s the country was going through a social revolution and the campus was definitely not the campus it is today. I am so amazed at the transformation of West Philadelphia. It is beautiful. Not just the shops but also the way they redid Logan Hall and College Hall and brought out the beauty of the architecture. When I came back [in 1999], I couldn’t believe the conservative dress of students today. But that’s a sign of the times and not specific to Penn.
Originally published on September 4, 2003