Inside Background

Alumni News

If you have Alumni news that you would like to share, please email the information to Tracy Fleeger at [email protected]
Nominations are currently being accepted for NKASD Distinugished Alumni.  Anyone can submit for consideration the name(s) of Graduates from Arnold HS, New Kensington HS, and Valley (Jr-Sr) HS.
The Nomination for is available HERE.

A skating rink and a drive-in movie theater were on Raymone Thomas’ list of business ventures she considered pursuing in New Kensington. Ultimately, she settled on a laundromat.


Seeing other skating rinks close in the area made her wonder whether one could work. She also worried about liability, safety and everything that comes with serving food. The biggest strike against a drive-in was the land that would be needed. But backed up by the findings of a demographic study, Thomas said there is a need for a laundromat not only for the community but also for herself.


Highlights of the research by Pittsburgh Laundry Systems are that half of the city’s nearly 5,000 households are rentals, which is considered an “excellent ratio,” and that there is only one competitor in the area.

“It’s something that will never go out of business. It’s not just something that comes and goes with the times,” Thomas said. “Even myself as a homeowner, I’m always in need of a backup washer and dryer service or when it’s a bigger comforter you can’t fit or want to get everything done.”


After about two years of work, Thomas is nearly ready to open her business, Rinsed & Reloaded, at 410 10th St. in a building that had previously housed a laundromat, Laundry Express. Thomas, who is waiting on final inspections, doesn’t have a date yet for when it will open, but a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house is set for 2 p.m. Saturday. New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo will attend.


“I think it’s great that we have a laundromat opening downtown,” he said. “Raye has put in a lot of hard work in order to prepare to open it, and I have no doubt it will be very successful.”  Thomas, 38, of Arnold is a registered nurse at West Penn Hospital and in the New Kensington-Arnold School District, primarily at the Roy Hunt and H.D. Berkey elementary schools.


As much as for herself, Thomas said she is opening a business for her four sons — Raydn, 14, Rayne, 12, Tre, 10, and Raycen, 9. “I want to pass it on to them,” she said. “My whole purpose is to invest and give back to my community.”


Attending classes at The Corner, Penn State’s entrepreneurial center in New Kensington, helped her to understand the city’s population, its needs and what business would be most beneficial. Alyssa Pistininzi, community operations manager at The Corner, said Thomas participated in two of its programs. “Raymone and her team participated in our Idea Test Lab and Opportunity Accelerator programs, both designed to help individuals explore their business ideas and dreams so they can begin assessing how to move forward to achieve their goals,” she said. “The Idea Test Lab, in particular, focuses on customer discovery and begins teaching participants about some of the beginning steps to start a business. We are thrilled to see her continue on her entrepreneurial journey and very excited to have Rinsed & Reloaded as part of the New Kensington business district!”


The building had been vacant for more than five years and needed a lot of work. “It was horrible,” she said.

Despite that, because it previously had been a laundromat, some of the needed utility infrastructure was already there, making it better than other possible locations in the city. Work on the space began when she got the keys in August. The building is owned by brothers Michael and Theodore “Teddy” Saganis, who also own residential rental property in the area. Teddy Saganis said they were planning on opening a laundromat of their own there until Thomas showed interest. “I think this is great,” he said. “We need this for our tenants.”


James Neff said he has wanted a laundromat closer to his home on Third Avenue for a long time. He now rides a bus to get to one in Springdale and does his laundry only about every two weeks. With one less than two blocks away he can walk to, Neff said he will do his wash more frequently. “We need it badly, very badly,” he said. “It looks like a nice place.”


With the first floor rehabilitated for the laundry, Teddy Saganis said they plan to have apartments on the building’s second and third floors. The laundry features new Huebsch machines. There are a dozen washers — eight 22 pounds, two 40 pounds and two 60 pounds — and a dozen dryers — eight 30 pounds and four 45 pounds. For customers, there will be a television and a chalkboard wall for children. Thomas said she hopes to have a drop-off laundry service. The laundromat will be operated within her family. Photos of the building before and during its transformation will be displayed. “I want people to see where we came from,” Thomas said. “We made something out of nothing.”


Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .


Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .


Tom Pipkins jokes that he might already be retired from working if high school athletes could’ve signed endorsement deals back in his day. That’s how much interest there was around the former Valley basketball star when he broke the WPIAL career scoring record 30 years ago this month. As part of the hype, Pipkins recalled, he was asked to autograph souvenirs before the game, keepsakes for a record that still stands three decades later.

“They had me signing buttons that they were going to pass out or sell or whatever,” said Pipkins, with a laugh. “Nowadays, people make money off that.”


His scoring record likely will fall this winter, but Pipkins soon will own another piece of WPIAL history. The 1993 Valley graduate will be inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame this spring as part of the 2023 class.

The list of inductees was revealed Wednesday in a news conference at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum inside the Heinz History Center. The induction banquet is June 2 at the DoubleTree in Green Tree.

Also featured in the class of 13 people and two teams were former NFL players Jonathan Hayes of South Fayette and Greg Meisner of Valley, championship coaches Bill Cleary of Serra Catholic and Bill Palermo of Sto-Rox and broadcaster Don Rebel of TribLive HSSN.


Meisner, like Pipkins, went to high school in New Kensington. “There’s great pedigree there of players from my generation, my father’s generation, my grandfather’s generation,” said Meisner, a 1977 graduate who played 11 seasons in the NFL. “Growing up, all you heard about was these people and you wanted to be like them.”

Meisner was among the athletes who gathered Wednesday morning for the WPIAL’s announcement.

“I was very honored and very humbled,” he said. “Western Pennsylvania is full of great athletes in all facets. To be recognized with that group is a great honor.”


The other athletes selected were North Allegheny’s Ray Brinzer (wrestling), Bethel Park’s Emily Carter (swimming), Serra Catholic’s Laura Grimm (basketball) and Peters Township’s Sarah Riske McGlamery (tennis).

The late James “Lash” Nesser, a former boys basketball coach at Uniontown, was the heritage selection. Nesser won 680 games combined at St. John and Uniontown, where he also won a PIAA Class 3A title in 1981.

The teams picked for induction were the 2000-01 Oakland Catholic girls basketball team that went 31-1 and won WPIAL and PIAA Class 4A titles under coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, and the 1981-82 Monaca boys basketball team that went 28-1 and won the WPIAL Class A title with no player taller than 6-foot-2.

Softball umpire Bob Osleger, who worked numerous WPIAL and PIAA championships, was chosen for his work as a game official.


Seneca Valley senior Virginia Fronk, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma before the fall soccer season, will receive the WPIAL Courage Award. Fronk, a George Mason recruit, helped lead the Raiders to a 13-2-2 record and the WPIAL semifinals.


Rebel, who started his broadcasting career in 1988, has been a recognizable voice around WPIAL sports for decades. He also changed the way fans listen to games by helping to launch the online streaming site MSA Sports Network, which became TribLive HSSN in 2017.


This is the 16th class enshrined in the WPIAL Hall of Fame since its formation in 2007. Pipkins, who broke the WPIAL record with an alley-oop dunk Jan. 29, 1993, said he had wondered when his induction day might come.

A paraprofessional in the Quaker Valley School District, Pipkins lives in Beaver County with his wife Danielle and son, Thomas III, who is a sophomore on the Hopewell basketball team. His daughter, Jaqueline, 24, lives near Los Angeles.


Pipkins, who later played college basketball at Duquesne, graduated from Valley with 2,838 career points. The previous WPIAL record was set in 1955 by Wampum’s Don Hennon with 2,376 points.

Pipkins scored 29 points the night he broke Hennon’s record in a 97-63 win over South Park at home in New Kensington.

“People don’t know how nervous I used to be before those games,” Pipkins said. “I’m a real quiet type of person. I don’t like the attention. To be getting all of that attention was way overboard for me.” However, Pipkins’ record could soon fall. Aquinas Academy senior Vinnie Cugini, who on Tuesday pushed his career total to 2,659 points, is within 179 points of Pipkins’ total. 


Truthfully, Pipkins said, he is somewhat surprised it took this many years. “Definitely, because the game has changed over the years,” he said. “Even before Vincent Cugini came about, there were a lot of other people who were getting a lot of shots. Even the NBA and college games have changed. People are playing from the outside in and taking more 3-pointers than before.” How will Pipkins feel when his record does finally fall? He’s not sure.

“You can’t really react to something proactively,” he said. “You don’t know how you’re going to feel until you get there.”


Meisner was a multi-sport standout at Valley, where he starred in football, set javelin records in track and also wrestled and played basketball. He was picked for the Big 33 Football Classic in 1977. The former Pitt defensive lineman later played 11 NFL seasons. He also served as football coach at Hempfield for seven seasons and was athletic director from 2005 to 2020.


Brinzer earned three consecutive WPIAL and PIAA wrestling titles for North Allegheny from 1988-90, and he won 109 consecutive matches in those three years. He later wrestled at Iowa, where he was a two-time All-American in 1993 and ’95.


Carter led the Bethel Park swimming team to consecutive state titles in 1998 and ’99 while collecting seven WPIAL and five PIAA individual gold medals. She set two WPIAL meet records and one PIAA record before competing for Stanford.


Cleary was one of only four WPIAL girls basketball coaches to win more than 600 games. He finished 657-156 in his 34 seasons, winning 18 section titles, four WPIAL titles and one state championship in 2005. Serra Catholic reached the WPIAL finals 10 times.


Grimm went 103-12 in four seasons on the Serra Catholic girls basketball team and became the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,940 points. The Eagles reached the WPIAL finals all four seasons, winning two WPIAL titles and one state championship. She later played at Colgate.

Hayes was a football standout at South Fayette and was picked for Big 33 Football Classic in 1981. He later became an All-American tight end at Iowa and played 12 seasons in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers.


Palermo went 589-137 as Sto-Rox’s softball coach and never had a losing season in a 35-year career that included 10 WPIAL titles and one state championship. He’s the winningest coach in WPIAL softball history.

Riske McGlamery was one of the WPIAL’s all-time best girls tennis players, winning three WPIAL singles titles and adding consecutive state championships in 1997 and ’98. She later earned All-American honors at Vanderbilt and played professionally until 2006.


Cheryl Peck Yakopec introduced herself, not as a judge, but as a “Valley girl” to students attending an after-school program at the Salvation Army in New Kensington. Peck Yakopec, a district judge in Lower Burrell and Allegheny Township for 28 years, said she was among the students who voted to name Valley High School after the merger of the New Kensington and Arnold school districts in 1965.


She said students from the rival schools considered “lame” names like Ar-Ken and Ken-Ar before settling on Valley, influenced in part by the song “Valley High,” which was popularized on a Saturday morning radio show on WKPA.

“I did not like going to high school,” Peck Yakopec told them, before later detailing the education she received after high school and stressing the importance of staying in school and graduating. “School is the best time of your life.” Peck Yakopec was a guest speaker Thursday at the Salvation Army’s Bridging the Gap initiative, a free 12-week life skills program for youths 12 to 17. It’s being held again after having been paused because of the pandemic, program director Gabrielle Ham said.


The program targets children who are considered at-risk because of issues such as school truancy, discipline and being suspended from school or on probation, said Ham, a 2010 Valley High graduate and New Kensington resident.

“We take referrals from schools, from courts and probation,” she said. “If a parent feels their child could benefit, we want them to come and do an application.” When they meet from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Salvation Army on Third Street, Ham said the children learn how to better themselves and can talk about their struggles in and outside of school. They also get a meal. 


Ham is drawing on her own life experience in teaching the children. “I grew up with getting in trouble in school. I went through the court system as a child,” Ham said. “Now, I just want to give back to my community.” Ham said she is working in field trips and guest speakers, such as Peck Yakopec. While no trips were yet planned, she would like to take the students to places such as the Carnegie Science Center and National Aviary in Pittsburgh.


Speaking to three students, ages 12 and 13, Peck Yakopec told them how she decided to go to college after realizing the person she was working for after high school was making twice as much because he had a degree. She then went to law school because her brother was a lawyer and working as a public defender, which sounded like an exciting job.


Peck Yakopec was an assistant public defender in Westmoreland County from 1982 until becoming a district judge in 1994.

She told the students about her work as a judge and the various kinds of cases she sees, including students who get in trouble for missing school, drugs and alcohol, and smoking or fighting in school. She described classes and programs she can put students in instead of fining them in hopes of changing their behavior.


Students should report bullying to teachers or their parents, Peck Yakopec said. If attacked, they shouldn’t fight back unless they get backed into a corner, she added. “The schools have zero tolerance for any fighting,” she said. “If you can avoid it, avoid it.”

She said it’s bad when kids come to school high or smelling of alcohol. “It’s way too early to be starting those problems,” she said. “Bad things happen when alcohol and drugs are involved.” Ham said students are able to join Bridging the Gap at any time. Seven students currently are enrolled, with three to four attending on a regular basis.


For information about the program, including which areas are eligible, contact the New Kensington Salvation Army at 724-335-7620, ext. 100.


Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .


This week on The Show, we’re joined by Scott Ballina, Senior Director of Diversity, Belonging & Giving at Citrix. We discuss his career to date, including his long-term involvement with the U.S Navy, his decision to focus on diversity and inclusion, and the value of prioritising diversity as a catalyst for what he calls Productive Disruption.


Scott Ballina is the Senior Director of Diversity, Belonging, & Giving at Citrix. With almost 20 years of experience creating, implementing, and championing diversity and inclusion initiatives, Scott is also a Diversity Speaker and a volunteer Mentor and Coach at American Corporate Partners, and organization that helps veterans transition from the military into civilian careers.


Scott Ballina began his professional journey in the U.S Navy, and it was his travels in his capacity as a Navy serviceman that inspired his passion for diversity and inclusion. He took that passion to Deloitte and spent nearly 15 years working on groundbreaking inclusion initiatives and programmes. Now at Citrix, his ability as a diversity practitioner sees him act as a champion of diversity and inclusion for the business and their clients, driving change and delivering business growth on a day-to-day basis.


Through Scott’s wealth of experience, we discuss how diversity and inclusion can be addressed by businesses to diversify their offerings, reduce risk, provide a better quality of product and service, and deliver faster, better, and more affordably. We also dive into how diversity and inclusion affect culture, how the pandemic has affected business’s ability to attract diverse talent, and the many benefits of a multi-generational workforce.


Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 724-226-7726, [email protected] 


Keen-eyed readers will notice local landmarks and other A-K Valley name-drops in the debut novel by Tamara Girardi, a Lower Burrell resident. “Gridiron Girl” is the first in a six-book set aimed at young adults. It launches March 3, published by Wise Wolf Books.


“Locals will see a lot of things they recognize,” said Girardi, who grew up in New Kensington and graduated from Valley High School. “The names are changed, but it won’t be too difficult to figure out.”


The main character, Jules Medina, has her heart set on capturing the role of starting quarterback for Iron Valley High School. She quits her championship volleyball team to follow her true passion for tossing the pigskin, only to battle stereotypes by coaches, players and members of the community.


“But there’s no stopping her from pursuing her dream,” Girardi said. The author’s inspiration stems from many, many hours discussing, watching and living with footballers, she said.


Her husband, Dom, was the Vikings quarterback when they met in high school. “His younger brothers played and his father was a coach,” Girardi said. “I spent a lot of time watching them throw the ball around in the backyard. When we were dating, he would mark X’s and O’s on Eat’n Park place mats and quiz me about routes. “We would go to Memorial Park and practice how to correctly throw the football.”


The writer got to thinking: “I wonder what would’ve happened if they had a little sister. Would she have wanted to play?” The thought paved the way for “Gridiron Girl,” in which the pages are filled with high school drama, teenage romance, friendships and lessons of self-worth.


Girardi said she drew from today’s women-in-sports movements that have empowered young girls.

To celebrate the book’s release, Girardi will host a book signing at 7 p.m. March 3 at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont. Tickets cost $14.95 and include a copy of the book.


That event will be followed by an Afternoon Coffee and Tea with Girardi at the newly opened 1833 Coffee and Tea Co. in Freeport. It will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m. March 6.


“We are so happy to be hosting this event,” co-owner Virginia Lindsay said. “We feel like it is good for our community to support one another and showcase our local talent.”


A third event will be 7:30 p.m. March 16 at Riverstone Books in McCandless.


After graduating in 2000 from Valley, Girardi attended Jacksonville University in Florida and then traveled to Scotland to earn a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews. She returned home and lived with her family in Harrison for more than a decade before settling in Lower Burrell. During that time, she earned a Ph.D. in English from IUP and began teaching at Westmoreland County Community College.


Her football-enthusiast husband is now the high school coach at Highlands, and Girardi is an associate English professor at Harrisburg Area Community College.


After signing the six-book sports series with Wise Wolf, a new publisher of YA fiction based in Las Vegas, Girardi has kept a frantic writing pace since last year. The second book, “Disorder on the Court,” is set for release in June. She is currently writing book No. 3, which will release in September.


In May, she’ll release an illustrated children’s board book titled “Why Daddy Why?” through a separate publisher, before setting out to write sports story No. 4, set to release in December.


“They have an innovative business model where they publish authors more frequently,” she said. “It’s been fun to be a part of that.”


After spending more than 15 years jotting stories in a notebook, the irony isn’t lost on Girardi that she’ll have five books on shelves this year.


“There are interesting stories in these sports stories and threads to develop,” she said. “I was able to write this series not just because of my husband but I thought back to my closest friends in high school and envisioned the situations. High school is impactful, and I want to relay stories of our wonderful community.”


Dr. Joe Mazzulli grew up in a suburb right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both his parents were hard workers and instilled in him the value and importance of work. His mother and father regularly assigned chores to Joe, his older brother, and younger sister to contribute to the upkeep of the house.

Joe discovered his first passion, music, at the age of six when he happened upon an old piano in the family’s basement. He started banging on the keys and, soon after, his mother signed him up for piano lessons. Joe continued to play and study the piano throughout his formative years, and continues to play today.

When he started attending high school, Joe discovered two additional areas of interest: math and biochemistry. Understanding math and biochemistry came easily to Joe, primarily because he found them so fascinating. Also, the patterns he saw in music overlapped with science and math. To him, they fit naturally together so he decided that, once he completed high school, he would study both music and biochemistry.

After graduating high school, Joe attended the University of Pittsburgh. Early in his studies, Joe signed up for Intro to Neuroscience, an elective class he’d heard great things about. This seemingly incidental choice would ultimately define the trajectory of Joe’s career: he took the class and was hooked. He added a neuroscience major to his biochemistry major and began pursuing degrees in both fields. Throughout his undergraduate years, Joe held multiple jobs to support the cost of his education, including janitorial and assembly-line positions in factories around Pittsburgh.

As he neared the end of his undergraduate education, Joe wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go to graduate school or medical school. So he started working as a technician in a neurobiology lab at the University of Pittsburgh. He already knew that he loved lab work, but witnessing the principal investigator’s passion for the research they were doing opened Joe’s eyes to how exciting the work could be.


During this same time, Joe applied for and received a travel grant to study abroad. This enabled him to take an intensive course in neurodegeneration at Japan’s prestigious RIKEN Brain Science Institute (RIKEN BSI). The topic fascinated him and, while at RIKEN BSI, he learned that the University of Pennsylvania was doing extensive work in the field. He applied and was accepted to the university’s graduate program, where he continued his studies in neurodegeneration.

While completing his PhD, Joe began researching neurodegeneration processes in disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. He wanted to understand how a protein can convert from its normal shape into a pathogenic or aggregated shape that ultimately leads to cell death. If there were a way to prevent, slow, or even halt this process, Parkinson’s and similar neurodegenerative diseases could conceivably be eradicated.

Joe authored his graduate thesis on the topic and, after earning his PhD and completing his postdoctoral studies, he opened his own lab at Northwestern University to further his research.

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Orders at Gus Franco’s Pizza should be made in advance because the artisan pies are hot — real hot. Boasting a top-of-the-line, wood-fired pizza oven from Italy, Gus Franco’s sizzles dough with an air temperature reaching 900 degrees, which is more than 100 degrees higher than many commercial pizza ovens. The light and crispy pizzas that emerge from the blistering heat are the product of handmade dough that ferments for 48 hours, said Patrick Elston, who owns the Lower Burrell shop with his wife, Mandy. They opened in mid-October.

“Just one little dough ball turns into somebody’s happiness on a Friday night,” said Elston, 45, of New Kensington.

But residents looking for pizza happiness, especially on a Friday night, are wise to call starting at 3 p.m. to claim a pie. The pizzas are hot, in another sense of the word. They often sell out every night, Tuesday through Saturday.

The Elstons spend a good deal of time explaining why reservations are recommended at their takeout-only shop. The reason: Only so many artisan pizzas can be made in one day — eight pies every 20 minutes, to be exact. Each pizza bakes for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. The homemade dough recipe has evolved to allow a crispy exterior while not drying out. The specialty wood-fired oven with a stone bottom cooks the pizzas within inches of the wood fire, without a barrier.

Using special kiln-dried oak supplied by Vaughan’s Tree Service of Tarentum, the pies rise faster on the fireside of the oven, Elston said. He spins the pies in the oven for even baking. “It requires constant attention,” he said. “You’re dancing with the oven when you are cooking.”


Given the tight baking schedule and a finite amount of dough, the shop turns any leftovers into buns for meatball sandwiches and pepperoni rolls. The wood-fired oven caramelizes the homemade Italian meatballs, made with a blend of beef and pork.

At the end of the day, just about everything sells out, Elston said. “We don’t have a lot of waste,” he said. When the pizza shop makes fresh buns with leftover pizza dough, they alert their patrons on Facebook and Instagram.

The success of the Elstons’ craft pizza is not surprising. He began selling wood-fired pizzas, with a different oven, from a trailer four years ago. A frequent vendor at festivals and private events, he took that success to another level and looked for a building to buy. “We wanted to be a neighborhood pizza shop,” he said. “We like meeting the customers and just getting to know them, just like when we were on the road with the trailer.”

He settled in Lower Burrell because the former dentist’s office at the corner of Leechburg Road and Michigan Avenue fit their needs. Plus, the two parking lots make it easy for patrons.

Elston quit his job at Westmoreland County’s parks department last year to pursue his pizza adventure full time. He always wanted a small place like Andy’s Restaurant in New Kensington, which his grandfather Francis Datres owned until the mid-1990s. A black-and-white photo of Datres in a kitchen apron hangs in the waiting area of Gus Franco’s.

The Elstons named their pizzeria after their two sons. Francis (“Franco”) is 7 and August (“Gus”) is 4. Opening the Lower Burrell shop was part of a four-year plan the couple devised. “We had a small taste of success,” Elston said. “People enjoyed what we were creating and we just grew from there.” He credits his family and staff for making it happen: Elston gave a shoutout to his aunt Nancy Alfera of Arnold; sister Sarah Yurga, who is a new member of the New Kensington-Arnold school board; and neighborhood kids Nick Sofaly and Karly Wass of Lower Burrell.

Gus Franco’s is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. The phone line, 724-212-3758,  opens at 3 p.m. for reservations.

People can still stop in for a pizza without calling, Elston said, but they run the risk of waiting a little longer based on the volume of other reservations — or hearing, “Sorry, we’re sold out for the evening.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected]

Brittany Dilliott was 6 years old when she discovered her love of dance while watching musicals such as “Annie,” “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I.” “They looked like they were floating. It looked like magic,” she said. “I was sucked in. I never looked back.” But when she started taking dance classes as a child, the studios were focused on competition. “I found I didn’t love competition,” she said. “I just loved to dance.”  That’s why Dilliott’s dance studio, Starlight Studio of Dance, isn’t about competition. “I just want them to dance and move and have a safe place to go to,” she said. Dilliott, 25, opened Starlight last August. It’s in the basement of the New Kensington Arts Center at 950 Fifth Ave.

Born and raised in New Kensington, Dilliott is a 2015 Valley High School graduate. She studied musical theater and dance at Seton Hill University, where she graduated in December 2019. Like every theater kid, Dilliott’s dream was to go to Broadway. She did, not as a performer, but as a Make-A-Wish recipient in 2014 — she was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 when tumors were found in her arm. “That influenced my life outlook a lot,” she said. “It made me realize how finite our lives are. We don’t have as much time as we think we do. “I’m going to make it in the arts somehow,” she said. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life in the arts.”

Dilliott said she realized she cared about more than just performing. “I decided that I like kids, and I want to share the arts,” she said. “I like kids and I like their energy and what they can bring to the table. They’re really creative. Giving them the tools to thrive is really rewarding.”

Dilliott was still working as a preschool teacher assistant in Jeanette for the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit when she decided last April to launch her business. “I got tired of waiting for the right timing,” she said. “Was it the best idea to start it in the middle of a pandemic? Probably not. But we’ve been making it. I consider that a win.”

After seeing Fifth Avenue begin to change, New Kensington was where she wanted it to be. “I grew up looking at all these empty buildings. I never knew New Kensington in its heyday,” she said. “I see people walking around town, coffee shops, activity, it’s so good for the community, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Dilliott said Starlight is open to children and adults of all ages, heights, and body types. “I’ll take anyone who wants to dance,” she said. “If you want to dance, you can here.”

For children, she offers ballet and jazz dancing. For the very young, movement is the focus. For adults, classes cover ballet, flexibility and core strengthening. Classes cost $17 per hour.

Dilliott runs the studio with help from her mother, Carol. Currently offering classes Wednesdays and Thursdays, Dilliott hopes to expand to five days a week and bring on other instructors. “I’ve struggled a little bit,” she said. “With every stumble, I’ve learned something.”

Dilliott took business courses while at Seton Hill but didn’t complete enough for a minor. She feels the weight of the responsibility that comes with being a business owner. She says it will be a slow crawl to get Starlight where she wants it to be, but she’s patient. “Even if I help one kid realize that there’s a lot more out there than what we think, that they’re capable of so much more, that’s important,” she said. “It makes it all worth it. I had a lot of really great examples to look up

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701or [email protected].


A vacation to Kathmandu, Nepal, planted the seed of adventure in Valley High School graduate Skylar Houck. “I went there to study Buddhism, but I developed this itch to travel,” said Houck, 23. “I really enjoyed the culture shock and experiencing things that are completely different from what I’m used to.” Houck, who graduated from Chatham University in 2019 with degrees in English and political science, is gearing up to spend two years in Taiwan.


This fall, she’ll study international communications at National Chengchi University to earn her master’s degree. She’ll live in Taipei City on her own, not part of any U.S. university program. “I really wanted to go back to Asia and experience different facets of culture throughout the huge continent,” she said. Born and raised in New Kensington, Houck said traveling across the globe has her eager and apprehensive.


“I am a bit nervous about traveling this time around,” she said. “I’m really just jumping into a situation in which I have no idea what to expect, but that sort of adds to the excitement.” In 2018, when she spent part of the summer in Nepal, Houck studied at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute to learn about Buddhism and traditional meditation from local monks.


It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was funded through a Pittsburgh scholarship, Houck said. “I had never experienced life outside of the U.S. before, and, most of all, I really wanted to learn more about Buddhist tradition,” she said. Houck credits her years at Valley High School for laying a solid foundation of wanting to continue learning.


“I had so many great teachers. I was mostly inspired by my English teachers and learned that writing is foundational to any career path,” she said. “The teachers and other students at Valley really made me who I am today.” 


Houck said a dream of hers is to help younger Valley students through a local scholarship or similar program. “I want Valley students to thrive,” she said. “They deserve it.”


Once she returns from Taiwan, Houck aspires to work with refugees in Pittsburgh or elsewhere across the country. Working as an adjunct professor is also a possibility, she said.


Houck already has been helping people through her job at Central Presbyterian Church in Tarentum, where she coordinates the Clothes Closet. Houck works four days a week organizing bags and boxes of donated shoes, shirts, pants and coats to be resold at bargain prices to those in need.


An internship with the church’s communications team parlayed into a job, and Houck said her time at the Tarentum site has reinforced her career path.


“This service is important because every week the clothing ministry serves people who are struggling and helps make them a little less stressed about life’s challenges,” she said.


“It’s grown my desire to forge a career working with refugees.”


Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 724-226-7726, [email protected]

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] 


Ron Eckman Jr. took off from New Kensington and 25 years later landed in Las Vegas. Eckman, 48, enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from Valley High School in 1991. He was an aircraft electrician, working on fighter jets at bases around the world and even traveled with the heralded Thunderbirds aerobatic team.

After retiring from the Air Force in 2016, he settled in Vegas, where he has his own counseling practice and works in the Clark County School District.

Eckman is among more than 50 Valley High alumni who have volunteered to take part in a new career coaching program for students by speaking in person at schools or recording video messages that students can watch. Eckman was working on a video.

“When I graduated, I really was unsure what I wanted to do,” he said. “I lacked focus and guidance in that area. The military allowed me to have some stability and learn life skills and to be able to help me figure out what I wanted to do later in life.”

Dana Fularz, the federal programs liaison for the New Kensington-Arnold School District, is spearheading the effort to find alumni who today’s students can look up to as role models from their hometown.

“I think a lot of our kids here, they only see what’s around them,” she said. “By bringing these alumni in, they get to see there’s a whole big world out there they can explore. Our students really need to see that.”

John Marzullo, a 2001 Valley graduate, lives in Oakmont and works as a real estate agent. He recently spoke in person to seniors and is scheduled to talk with juniors during classes Thursday.

“I felt nervous in the sense that I didn’t know if they would care what I had to say or not. I was thinking back to when I was in school, if someone showed up and gave a presentation, would I have even cared?” he said. “The students were great. They were asking really good questions. They were really engaged. We were talking about some pretty dense subject matter.”

After high school, Marzullo, 38, said he went to technical school and college, both “for a little while,” but didn’t earn a degree. He managed a retail store before becoming a real estate agent in 2013 and has had his own team for two years.

“You can be successful in a nontraditional path,” he said. “I wasn’t the best student. Sometimes it feels like if you’re not good at traditional learning, you’re not going to be good. I found out I do love learning when the content is something that I’m interested in and I’m excited about.”

Maria Pallone, 26, a 2013 graduate, will be making a video about her life after Valley High, which included graduating from Westminster College with a degree in business administration in 2017 and then working for U.S. Steel.

“I hope to get across that there are options out there for them. You can pursue many things in your career, whether it be college or vocational programs,” she said. “You have a lot of options. It’s not cut-and-dry.”

Pallone married Andrew Macura, a 2015 Valley graduate, in November, and they live in New Kensington. He also is doing a video about himself and his career working for the internal audit division of a bank.

“This is going to be a great program to really connect with the students and grow a group,” Pallone said. “I hope it gives them an opportunity to see what they want to pursue.”

From reaching out on the district’s website and social media, Fularz said they already have heard back from graduates from the 1960s up to 2021. She hopes to find more alumni to participate and at some point start a one-on-one mentoring program and a district alumni association. Fularz is a 1991 alumna.

“I want them to see anybody can do anything if they set their mind to it, including all of our students. These alumni are proof,” she said. “I want them to see there’s a whole range of possibilities. It doesn’t matter where you are from. It matters where you are going.”

Eckman remembers working part time at Fazio’s in Arnold while he was in high school. He pondered joining the military and which branch was best for him.

“I’m proud to be from New Kensington. I loved growing up there,” he said. “That is part of something I want to get across to the kids. Be proud of where you’re from, but also know that there’s other opportunities out there as well.

“If that path takes you away and out of your comfort zone and out of New Kensington, that’s OK, too. Follow that path if that’s what makes sense.”

Monica Monroe, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s first Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion, has accepted a position as Dean of the Office of Community Engagement, Equity, and Belonging (CEEB) at Harvard Law School (HLS).


Monroe has played an integral role in the Law School’s Office of Equity & Inclusion (E&I) since its inception in 2019. During Monroe’s tenure the Office has focused on establishing mechanisms to connect and collaborate with the many stakeholders in the Law School’s community, developing educational programs that examine substantive issues of equity and justice, as well as training programs focused on the skills needed to overcome bias and advance inclusion. The Office has also offered focused support to those historically underrepresented in the law and legal profession.


As Associate Dean of E&I, Monroe worked to cultivate several programs aimed toward building a safe and collegial environment for all law students. During her time in the position, she established the Office’s student advisory board, developed relationships and supported programs for Law School affinity groups, counseled student groups that sought guidance and training on issues of equity and inclusion, and organized collaborative networks across peer schools, the Law School, and the University.


“Monica has been an invaluable thought partner as we grew this office from the ground up,” said Rivera Finkelstein. “She intuitively understood the need to build community around our efforts and spearheaded a coalition of peers across our University and across our peer law schools. Her collaborative instincts will ensure an ongoing partnership even, or especially, as she embarks on her new role at Harvard. I am thrilled for Monica and excited about the chance to expand our collective DEI work well beyond the work of any one institution.”


Kalpana Kotagal L’05, Co-Chair of the E&I’s Alumni Advisory Board, echoed Rivera Finkelstein’s praise for Monroe’s outstanding contributions and dedication. “I have loved working with Monica as we’ve built the Alumni Advisory Board on Equity and Inclusion,” said Kotagal. “Her commitment to supporting students from under-represented backgrounds and advancing the Law School’s commitment to meaningful equity, inclusivity, and accessibility is deep.”


Prior to her role in E&I, Monroe served as the Law School’s Dean of Students, where she prioritized caring for students’ mental health.


“Recognizing the importance and impact of good mental health in law school and every stage of life, I worked with Law School and University administrators to bring a CAPS embedded counselor to the Law School to create greater access to these services,” Monroe said. “I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments during my time as Dean of Students.”


Monroe’s commitment and enthusiasm will be greatly missed by the entire Law School community.


“Monica has been a vital part of the spirit and soul of the Law School since the day she arrived,” said Wolff. “Her singular capacity for intuition about people in a community, the maturity of her judgment, the care and empathy she brings to all she does; in a word, she is indispensable. Harvard is both wise and lucky to have stolen her away from us.”


Monroe will assume her new position at HLS on February 22.


“It is my sincere hope that the CEEB team and I will continue to support all members of the HLS community and together celebrate and embrace difference in a constructive and impactful way,” Monroe said. “The goal is for all of us to feel that we belong at HLS while affording one another grace and an equal opportunity to engage in the full vibrancy of the institution while embracing our authentic selves.”


On a personal note, Monroe, who earned her undergraduate degree from Boston University, is eager to return to New England.


“This period at Penn has been one of the most enlightening seasons of my life,” Monroe said. “While not without disappointment and discomfort, my time here has offered me my most significant growth and necessary knowledge for this next journey. It has been my honor to partner with, learn, and serve students at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School in this vital work. For that, I am eternally grateful.”


Monroe also holds a JD from George Washington Law. After clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, she spent six years with a private practice in Washington, D.C., practicing real estate, housing, employment, and commercial law. In 2004, Monroe returned to GW Law to teach Legal Research and Writing, ultimately also serving as the school’s Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Associate Dean. Monroe joined the Law School in 2016 as Dean of Students, a position she held for three years until becoming the Associate Dean of E&I.

Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 724-226-7726, [email protected] 


The first novel from the New Ken native, E.B. Andrews (Erik Beck), is now available for presale on Amazon! Kylee Danko (KyleeRose Art) designed the cover. Paperback copies and an audiobook will be available Saturday, January 29th. Please help support them by enjoying the book for yourself or sharing it with anyone who enjoyed Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, or A Wrinkle in Time.


Follow the link to preorder! 


Description - "From the Windlebees perched in the window displays, to the Tamblers winding across the carts of street peddlers, the town of Shinar is full of strange and mysterious oddities, but none so great as the cursed black bag of Leonard Bravecci. Well - that is of course with the exception of the man himself. No one knows how Leonard made his way back into town, or why he would ever dare to return, but one thing is certain; life in Shinar has only gotten worse since he came around. When he reappears after almost sixteen years in exile, everyone turns him away. Everyone except for Pooka. A con artist down on his luck, Pooka is desperately looking for a way to make some extra money... and flee town. Whether or not Leonard is cursed, the boy knows an opportunity when he sees one. Cursed, however, is an understatement. From selling elixirs at Estacion de Commercio to a prison cell in Katorga, nothing goes as either of them planned. Such is life in Shinar. But maybe life can change for an outcast and a swindler, assuming they can do the impossible; cure the plague and save the city that despises them."