By Janee Law
As employees at Huntington Town Hall mourn the sudden death of their colleague and friend Debra ‘Debbie’ Cotugno, a bench with a plaque will be dedicated in her name and placed in the town hall courtyard, near the Veteran’s Plaza.
“That’s my first memory of her, being out there in the courtyard by where people eat lunch,” said Peggy Karayianakis, comptroller at town hall. Having worked with Cotugno for eight years, Karayianakis said the bench is going to be in her spot because that’s how most employees knew her.
Cotugno, 53, of Deer Park, died of sepsis on Sept. 9 and, although she was in a wheelchair for 40 years, she is remembered as someone who didn’t let circumstances restrict her from living life.
When she was 13 years old, Cotugno broke her neck after diving into a 4-foot pool and became paralyzed.
“I would say that she didn’t let her handicap stop her,” said her sister, Annemarie D’Attoma, 55, who also works at Town Hall as a tax cashier. “In her eyes, she was not in a wheelchair, she just accomplished whatever she could accomplish in that chair.”
After attending St. John’s the Baptist High School, Cotugno graduated from Dowling College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration before working voluntarily for a year at Town Hall. Following the civil service test, D’Attoma said that Cotugno earned a full-time position and continued an education in accounting at Town Hall.
Cotugno worked for 30 years in the comptroller’s office, starting out as an account clerk. She was promoted to a senior account clerk and then a principal account clerk. Co-workers said Cotugno loved to talk about her nieces and nephews and her silky terrier dog, Archie.
Following her death, D’Attoma said Karayianakis and Donna Rossetti, an executive assistant, came up with the idea to dedicate a bench in Cotugno’s memory. They sent out an email to co-workers, family and friends seeking donations for the dedication. Donations were accepted during the Town of Huntington board meeting on Oct. 6.
“By the last count, it was 95 people that contributed to what would now be this bench,” said town spokesman A.J. Carter.
Working with Cotugno for 19 years, Senior Clerk Joanne Fodera said everyone thought she was coming back after leaving going to rehab for a hairline fracture in June. Cotugno was scheduled to be back in early August but as a result of a broken femur, went back to rehab and ended up getting sick with pancreatitis.
Although she was in and out of hospitals, Donna McNulty, an accountant and co-worker of Cotugno for 11 years, said that Cotugno “was like the cat with nine lives,” and always bounced back from every obstacle.
“We truly depended on her because she was very well versed, after all these years,” Karayianakis said. “She was very dedicated and she was a great friend and if you needed her, she would always be there.”
Although she never married or had kids, Cotugno’s legacy lives on through her nieces, nephews and four siblings: D’Attoma, Phyllis Brown, 54, Linda Cartee, 52, and Angelo Cotugno, 47.
“Our chain is broken literally in half now,” D’Attoma said. “We are broken and we’ll never be the same because she’s gone.”
“She always had a positive attitude, and she always wanted to do more,” Karayianakis said.
With her “super van,” as Karayianakis called it, Cotugno would travel to Niagara Falls, and never missed the opportunity to see a Broadway show in New York City, McNulty said.
“I think she accomplished more in her life as a handicapped individual than so many people that I know that aren’t handicapped,” said Rossetti, who worked with Cotugno for 13 years.
“She kept busy,” D’Attoma said. “She was a doer and the chair didn’t stop her.”