All kinds of exemplary people have been named Schenectady Patroons. The title — considered the highest honor the city can bestow upon a citizen — has gone to successful entrepreneurs, lifelong attorneys, Union College’s first female baccalaureate, social cause advocates, war veterans and baseball champions.
When Mayor Gary McCarthy named Gioia Ottaviano a Patroon on Saturday for her lifelong involvement in the arts, she was a little taken aback.
“Somebody else said this earlier, but I’ll repeat it: All I do is show up,” she said to a room filled with laughter at her 90th birthday party, held at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, one of her favorite local haunts.
Of course, she’s done a lot more than just show up at local arts and entertainment productions; she’s helped produce shows and supported charitable causes her entire life, especially in the arts. Local arts venues depend on people who show up for their continued success, so no one is a more beloved or appreciated regular than Ottaviano.
“If you look back over her life, all the things that she has done for this community, the energy and enthusiasm she brings, we are just so fortunate to have you as part of the Schenectady fabric,” said McCarthy. “I couldn’t think of anyone better than Gioia to designate as a Patroon.”
Ottaviano’s family first came to the U.S. from Italy in 1890. Her grandfather settled in Schenectady, and her family has stayed ever since. Ottaviano grew up on Avenue B in the city’s Goose Hill neighborhood and attended Oneida School, going on to spend 45 years working in the Schenectady City School District as a teacher and librarian. Even when she was at Buffalo Teachers College, she came home each summer to serve as assistant park director at Steinmetz Park.
If there’s something happening in the local arts community, Ottaviano is probably there. She estimates she has attended as many as 90 percent of local theater productions and even has her own regular seat at Proctors, the city’s landmark theater.
Although Proctors CEO Philip Morris was in New York City on Saturday, he made sure to prepare a video message for Ottaviano that was played at her birthday party.
“Gioia, I’m in New York,” he said over the TV. “I have to be in New York because I have to buy all the stuff that you’re going to come see. I’m missing the party, Gioia, and I’m sorry, because I think this is the year at 90 that you’re actually as old as the number of things you come to Proctors for. Oh wait, maybe that’s 100. Anyway, I’ll keep buying, you keep coming.”
Ottaviano has produced many of the shows at Schenectady Civic Theatre, but has only made one known stage appearance. That was in June 2013 when presenting “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
She goes to every show and has been a member at Schenectady Light Opera for more than 50 years, serving as either president or producer. When Schenectady venues aren’t having shows, she is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or watching a play at Albany Civic Theater, Capital Repertory Theatre or in Glens Falls. She’s also helped the Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library with programming.
The nonagenarian has followed in her mother’s footsteps. Frank Duci actually named Ottaviano’s mother a Patroon back when he served as mayor for her strong involvement in the arts. Indeed, it’s where Ottaviano learned her own love of the arts.
“I’m fuzzy on the year,” she said Saturday, “but she just did what I did. Everybody loved her. My mother and aunt Felicia, they immediately wanted to work to be Americanized, you know? This was one of the ways they did that.”