Retired Connellsville teacher enjoys back to school, up close and personal
While thousands of local children went back to the books last week, Fotenie Mongell of Connellsville went “back to school” this summer.
Mongell, 90, a retired junior high school science teacher, got the chance to visit her early days as a home economics teacher when a former student — and lifelong friend — came North to see her.
Camilla (Mabry) Pass was a student of Mongell's when the fledgling teacher flew Connellsville's coop to live in Florida with family friends in the early 1950s.
After decades of written correspondence, Mongell and Pass finally enjoyed a face-to-face reunion in Connellsville this summer.
As a college student, Mongell attended Carnegie Tech for three years and finished her teaching degree in Florida. She got her first position as a home economics teacher — a job that flabbergasted her father.
“Daddy asked me, ‘Whadda you teach the kids?' I said, ‘I teach the girls how to cook.' He said, ‘I send you to college — and you're back in the kitchen?' ” remembered Mongell. Her parents, the late Pearl and George Melassanos, owned and operated Connellsville's Star Restaurant on North Pittsburgh Street (near today's Pechin Express/Curves) from 1917 to 1957.
Her home economics position was the recipe that yielded a half-century-long friendship.
Pass (then Mabry), a native Floridian, was taught by Mongell in the 1950s. “She reminded us that she wasn't that much older than us,” said Pass, whose family farm's major crop in Florida is strawberries, packaged under the “Hinton Farms” label.
On 25 acres, Hinton Farms produces berries that are sold from coast-to-coast. “We even send strawberries to Alaska,” Pass said. She said Florida has a year-round growing season although the hot, wet summers are a challenge. “Only okra grows (in bad weather) ... you have to be tough to live in Florida (in the summer).”
Mongell' taught home economics at Turkey Creek High School — the old-fashioned way. “It was wonderful back then,” she said. “I taught cooking, nutrition, budgeting — even upholstering.”
Mongell stressed the one secret essential to being a good cook: “If you can't make a good white sauce, you'll never be a good cook.”
“It's the basis for good gravy — and many other things,” Pass echoed.
Plain common sense
Home economics students in the 1950s learned common-sense skills that are useful throughout life, such as using a tape measure and ruler and how to measure things precisely from teaspoons to gallons. “We learned how to properly set a table, and we learned proper etiquette. It was such a good life experience,” Pass said.
Eventually, Mongell headed back to Connellsville, where she wound up teaching Earth and Space Science to junior high students for more than 20 years, a career whose memories she treasures.
She raised five children and enjoys her 14 grandchildren. Still, she never forgot her Florida experience and was thrilled at the chance to see her old student and longtime friend..
Ever since the two discovered many years ago that they shared the same birthday, they stayed in touch by mail.
“But this is an exciting time,” Mongell said. “It's the first time ever that she visited me in person. It's wonderful!”
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.