It was a holiday luncheon in 1991 when Mary Ann Discenza, then the commissioner of the county Department of Social Services addressed employees, including Kristen Monroe, who would become the commissioner years later.
“She stood up and spoke to us from her heart about how important the work is that we do at social services,” Monroe said in an emailed statement Monday. “I remember how she was able to make us laugh with her witty sense of humor in one sentence and humbled us with recognition of the often difficult and heartbreaking work we do in the next. I remember being struck with her genuine ease at connecting with people and making every one of us feel special. It was a day I have not forgotten because of the way she made me feel proud of the important work done at social services.”
Discenza died over the weekend at the age of 78, said Tim Perfetti, a longtime friend of Discenza’s.
Monroe said when Discenza was a county legislator and Monroe became social services commissioner, Discenza offered good insight and advice.
“We had many talks about the challenges of delivering social services, but she always left me with new ideas and a belief that no matter what obstacles or changes we faced, we could still make a difference,” Monroe said. “I will miss her optimism and support tremendously.”
In January 2019, Discenza announced her resignation from the Legislature representing the city of Cortland after she said health issues had hindered her ability to fully perform her duties after serving for five years.
During her time as a legislator, she said one project she is most proud of was the Tobacco 21 campaign — the county’s law passed in 2016 banning tobacco and e-cigarette sales to people under age 21.
She was the minority leader of the Democratic caucus on the Legislature.
From 1981 to 1991, Discenza was the Cortland County Department of Social Services commissioner. Monroe said that Discenza “had a special passion” for helping people, especially children, and supported many programs in the community.
“When Mary Ann spoke, I wanted to listen,” Monroe said. “Her words were always thoughtful, kind and genuine. She was a realist who kept focus on her passion to help those in need. I never saw her rattled, and I think that is because she always did her research and held such clear beliefs on how others should be treated. Mary Ann reinforced to me the importance of truly caring about what you do or you should not be trying to do it. She cared about what she did, how she did it, why she did it, and she made the world a much better place for many people.”
Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin said Discenza was a kind, caring and genuinely concerned person, and it showed when she attended any community program in the county.
“If there was a meeting, she was there,” Tobin said. “If there was a problem that needed to be solved, she was one of the people willing to figure out what the solution would be.”
Clerk of the Legislature Eric Mulvihill said Discenza will be recognized at Thursday’s Legislature meeting.
Discenza is survived by her long-term companion Carole O’Rourke of Cortland, brothers Michael Joseph and Jacque Discenza of Rochester and Joseph John and Linda Discenza of Cortland. Several nieces and nephews, as well as O’Rourke’s children, grandchildren and siblings.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church with the Rev. Joseph Zareski serving as celebrant. A service limited to family will follow at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Contributions in Discenza’s memory may be made to St. Mary’s Parochial School, 61 N. Main St. Cortland.