NAUGATUCK — Jessie Ballenger was ready to take on public office when she found out she had been nominated as African-American mayor of the day.
“You just never know when something good happens out of the blue,” Ballenger said. “You never know when people are watching you and been taking you into consideration for honors and recognition.”
Mayor Robert Mezzo handed his office over to Ballenger Monday as part of the town’s observance of Black history month.
“His office looks like mine at school,” Ballenger joked, noting piles of paper and pending work on Mezzo’s desk.
Ballenger, who is assistant principal at Danbury High School, has lived in Naugatuck for 30 years and raised three daughters in the borough.
“We think of her more than an African American. We think of her as a Naugatuckian American, someone who we are proud to call our own. Someone that we are honored to celebrate here today,” Mezzo said.
During her symbolic term in office, Ballenger sat down with Mezzo to discuss the long-term options for the borough’s schools. The Long-Term School Facilities Planning Committee is sending a survey to borough residents to get their input as to how grades should be grouped in the future.
Mezzo said Ballenger’s dedication to education was no surprise.
“Education in the African-American community here in this country and this borough share a special bond, where we take for granted the free quality education here. That was not always the case in the United States where we learned the hard way that separate was inherently not equal. It is no surprise that Ms. Ballenger has dedicated her life to not only educating her students and being an advocate for education but also in the form of raising her wonderful family,” Mezzo said.
Ballenger grew up in Mobile, Ala. and was the first college graduate in her family.
“Acquiring an education was my priority to overcome obstacles. It was my passport to new places and opportunities,” Ballenger said.
During his speech, Mezzo joked that Ballenger would have a busy schedule for the day with departmental budget presentations scheduled that night.
Ballenger said she couldn’t do much with the budget, but suggested using a weekly dress-down day for town hall staff to raise money for local charities.
Naming a mayor of the day is a way to promote cultural awareness and diversity, according to Ralph Roper, chair of the Cultural Council.
“What you don’t see is what you don’t know,” he said.
The town already recognizes Polish and Irish mayors-of-the-day, but the council hopes to offer the symbolic office to representatives of as many groups as possible, Roper said.
He said the council’s goal is to have a representative from every community group in Naugatuck.
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