Small town life, festival’s impact considered at dinner

FOLLANSBEE – The award-winning coach of the West Liberty University men’s basketball team and two honorees at the Follansbee Community Days dinner Wednesday spoke about how growing up in a small town positively influenced them while three Follansbee mayors reflected on the growth and impact of the festival, which is in its 20th year.

The annual dinner has served both to honor current and former Follansbee residents for public service and success in various fields and to help kick off the festival, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Follansbee Park parking lot.

Serving as guest speaker was Jim Crutchfield, whose success in leading the WLU Hilltoppers to four consecutive West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships has led to his being named National Division II Coach of the Year twice and the West Virginia Sports Writers Association’s Coach of the Year three times.

Crutchfield said growing up in Clarksburg, his family and many others had no more than one car, one television set and no air conditioning in their home.

“Everybody was pretty much in the same boat,” he said.

But he added he doesn’t consider such conditions a bad thing. The lack of air conditioning, for example, led him and other youth to seek activity outside, whether it be playing ball or swimming at the local pool, Crutchfield said.

Having one car meant families rode to places together, while having one television meant families watched together, he recalled.

“It brought families together,” Crutchfield said.

He said as he drove into Follansbee, he was impressed by the line of U.S. flags hanging over Main Street. He encouraged city officials and residents to preserve such small but significant signs of community spirit.

This year’s Community Days honorees – actress Dana Cuomo Merenda and gaming industry leader Gino Iafrate – spoke of the positive influences in Follansbee that helped form them.

Merenda said she and her husband Ross, also a Follansbee native, always will value the emphasis their families and neighbors placed on education, integrity, kindness and respect for others, a strong work ethic and most importantly, a belief in and love of God.

She said as a youth, her many positive role models included her parents, Frank and Sharon, an attorney and teacher; aunt, Shirlie Jean Cuomo, also a teacher; teachers Jenny K. Stucin and Paul “Bud” Billiard and then Brooke High School principal Tony Paesano.

Merenda’s brother, Jason, noted following graduation from Brooke High School in 1992, his sister went on to earn a law degree at West Virginia University and practiced law for a time before pursuing an acting career in California and New York City.

She has had guest roles in several primetime television series, including “Desperate Housewives,” “CSI: New York,” “CSI: Miami,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” “Days of Our Lives” and as recently as Wednesday, “Royal Pains,” as well as co-starring in “Wake Up, It’s Tuesday,” a web-based series she co-created; and “Bad Dates,” a 90-minute one-woman play presented at Portland, Maine’s Good Theater.

Recently she was named spokeswoman for Dannon’s line of Light and Fit Greek yogurt. She also has taught acting to youth in California and New York.

Iafrate also named several role models, including Billiard who, as his former Brooke football coach, introduced him; St. Anthony School football coach Vince Fadse, peewee football coach Frank “Blackie” Sissini, Little League baseball coach Kenny Drake; his parents, Geno “Bimbo” and Doris; and Community Days co-chair Nina Meca, whom he called his “second mom.”

He said he considers those individuals as great leaders because they were “people I didn’t want to disappoint.”

Iafrate said while managing The Flamingo casino in Las Vegas, he encountered a bellhop named Vincent with “arms like Popeye’s” and an attitude that reminded him of home.

Like his father, a steelworker for 37 years, Vincent had a passion for his job and helping others, he explained.

As a teen, Iafrate worked as a disc jockey and operated a vending machine business and after graduating from Brooke and West Virginia University, owned and operated Follansbee’s Bulldog Pub for a time before working in gaming and hospitality management for more than 15 years.

In that time he has been senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Entertainment’s northwest Louisiana operations; played a leading role in the merger of Harrah’s with rival gaming giant Caesar’s Palace; and the reconstruction of The Grand Casino in Biloxi, Miss. following Hurricane Katrina.

Iafrate currently is an executive consultant for Pinnacle Entertainment of Lake Charles, Fla., for which he has overseen casinos that have received awards for services ranging from entertainment to buffets and golf courses.

Those attending the dinner also heard from former mayors Rudy Cipriani and Tony Paesano.

Cipriani noted the festival’s concept was suggested by him and others as a way to promote the city’s heritage and provide fundraising opportunities for school, church and civic groups.

He said by drawing new visitors to the city, the festival also has helped to expose its businesses to potential clientele.

Cipriani said the Kickoff in the Park, with free food and swimming, has been a popular feature from the start, and was joined by other events. He encouraged the Community Days committee to be open to new ideas, allowing it to grow further.

Paesano said the festival also has brought family and friends together and has been a success through the hard work of its volunteer committee and, he believes, through God’s blessing. He said the theme for this year’s Community Days Parade is “Celebrating 20 Years of Blessing.”

Larry Rea, the city’s fire chief for many years, will serve as marshal for the parade, which will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday on Main Street.

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