WALLINGFORD — Longtime Democratic Town Council member Iris Papale died Wednesday at 86.
She leaves a legacy as the first woman elected to the council and as someone not afraid to cross party lines.
Papale won her first Town Council election in the mid-1970s. She served for 32 years before deciding not to seek re-election in 2007.
At the time of her death, she was a town Board of Ethics alternate member. Her term was due expire next year.
Upon her retirement from the council, she was the longest continuously serving member.
Her Republican colleague Robert F. Parisi surpassed her record, serving for 36 years on the Town Council before retiring in 2015.
Among town councilors, Parisi served with Papale the longest, nearly her entire 32 years. They knew each other all their lives and graduated together from Lyman Hall High School in 1953.
“I guess most people in Wallingford will tell you that we were a political twosome,” Parisi said Thursday. “Iris and I were both people-persons, and very oriented towards constituent service. (If) you had a problem, we would get on it and really go to work for you.”
Parisi said that over the course of their lifelong friendship, they discussed many personal things and often sought each other’s opinion.
“We were very, very respectful of each other politically,” Parisi said, recalling one election year when he and Papale were situated on the ballot across from each other, on their opposing party lines.
Parisi said Papale told him she didn’t like the appearance of them being against each other. The Town Council seats are at-large and candidates don’t challenge each other.
“We're not against each other,” Parisi said he told Papale. “Don’t look at it that way. It's a positive thing. Now they're going to not have any trouble finding both of us because we’re together. So we laughed that off.”
Papale was co-owner of Papale’s Greenhouses and was married to Mario Papale, with whom she had two sons, David and Richard, and a daughter, Lynda. After Mario Papale’s death, her companion was Michael Moriarty Sr.Advocated for people
During her tenure, Papale didn’t always vote with the rest of the Democrats, much to the consternation of local party leaders at the time.
However, former Democratic Council Chairman Mike Brodinsky, who served with Papale, remembered her personality more than her political record.
He said Thursday that Papale was known for her “friendly demeanor, warm smile and respectful manner, regardless of any acrimony that may have been swirling around the Town Council and the political parties."
Alida Cella, the current Democratic town chair, said that she knew of Papale and met her through Beth Israel Synagogue, but their paths hadn’t crossed on the town committee.
She said that Papale exemplified “a person involved with the party, but always put her community first.”
“This marks the passing of a generation of Wallingford residents who were civically involved and invested in their community,” Cella said, “and it is my hope to bring forward a whole new generation of leaders ready to do the same. It is a Jewish tradition to give money to organizations and causes that were important to the deceased, and so by keeping the DTC strong in Wallingford, I hope to honor her memory and efforts, and those of many others who have been part of this organization before me.”
David Gessert, American Legion Post 187 vice commander, said that while Papale was an active Democrat, she had friends on both sides of the aisle.
“She just advocated for people,” said Gessert. “We were in total agreement on, ‘let's make government work for people.’ I think that was her philosophy: make it work.”
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said that Papale was “always very positive, always interested in the well being of the town, and the people who live in town.”
“Wallingford has lost just a wonderful person, an absolute superlative citizen,” he said. “People like that make an impact because they show the rest of us how to do it.”
Dickinson said that Papale was always interested in having good educational services and was supportive of Public Works projects and the police and fire departments.
“She wanted all aspects of the community to be an A-plus,” he said.
Riley O’Connell, the current Democratic candidate for mayor, did not return a request for comment.
Vincent Testa, a Democratic candidate running for re-election this year, served with Papale from his first term until her retirement.
He sought her advice often and valued her counsel and her friendship.
“Iris’ service to Wallingford was matched by very few people in our history,” Testa said. “She epitomized the true public servant, dedicating herself to her community as a town councilor, member of numerous boards and charities and as an enthusiastic mentor of countless citizens interested in serving our town. She guided so many people who have served as elected or appointed officials, volunteers, or employees.”
Jeanne McFarland, of Wallingford Community Women, said that while she didn't have a lot of interactions with Papale, she observed that she was not one-sided based on her party affiliation.
“Everything she did was what was going to be the best thing for the town of Wallingford,” McFarland said, “and that always came across … Frankly, I think we need more people like that.”
Papale was enormously successful at elections, garnering the highest vote count on the council many times. She herself chalked that up to her personable interaction with constituents.
"I think people put me on their level, that I'm there to help," Papale said in 2007. "I feel that I always have the ability to relate in a personal way to all of the citizens."