By Gino Piroli, Beaver County Times
May 1, 2017
Times reporter Christina Sheleheda wrote a story recently about Beaver County native Joan Van Dyke under the headline, “Mount Gallitizin’s first female student to debut ballet inspired by her school days.”
I’m sure the story brought back memories to many who attended that school in Baden and the exceptional Sisters of St. Joseph who taught there. The article described Van Dyke’s interest in ballet beginning at age 5, her schooling at Mount Gallitizin and Quigley Catholic High School and then her collegiate days when she eventually earned master’s degrees in ballet and fine arts.
I was close friends with her mom, Lena Ceccarelli, and dad, Jim Van Dyke, even before they began their friendship and married. The Van Dyke family was originally from Punxsutawney, and Merritt Van Dyke, Jim’s dad, brought his family to Aliquippa when he became employed at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. plant. Lena was a neighbor in our Logstown neighborhood, and her brother, Louis “Gigi,” was one of my best friends.
Lena always tells the story of when her brother went into the service in World War II and told me to look out for her, which I did until I went into the Navy. She was 13, and we used to take her to the social dances and made sure she danced all 12 sets. She also points out that I wouldn’t let her wear lipstick at the dances. She was also one of the bridesmaids at our wedding in 1949.
Jim Van Dyke and I worked in the pipe shop, and after he and Lena married, he went to work for the Postal Service in Aliquippa. He was a supervisor when I became the postmaster and from there went on to become a postmaster in Homestead and later in Rochester.
When a postmaster vacancy opened in his native Punxsutawney, he applied and was appointed to that position. He moved the family there in 1984 and became a part of that community’s famed Groundhog Day festivities. There are photos of him decked out in a top hat and all the finery when the groundhog made its decision.
Joan began her career dedicated to ballet and, after college, returned to Punxsutawney and founded the Van Dyke company in 1984 to provide dance instruction for children and adults. She also founded the Mahoning Valley Ballet company to provide the more serious dancers the opportunity to perform and choreograph. The company and the Van Dyke studio has performed 19 classical ballets and numerous showcases since 1984.
They dedicated this year’s performance to the Sisters of St. Joseph for their unwavering dedication to their students and serving as role models for women. The program lists an original ballet directed by Joan and music by Stanley Chepaitis and Sister Ruth Sattler. Sattler composed music throughout her lifetime at Mount Gallatizin and for this ballet her music was integrated with that of Chepaitis, a music professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, Sattler couldn’t make the trip, but 26 nuns from the Baden home came by bus to witness the show. A number of friends, schoolmates and relatives from this area also made the trip. The following day, the local newspaper, Punxsutawney Spirit, had a headline, “Mayor welcomes visitors with day in their honor.” There was a photo showing Mayor Richard Alexander presenting a proclamation to Sister Caritas Marshall declaring Friday as Mount Gallitizin and Sisters of St. Joseph Day. Alexander is a native Aliquippan from the Plan 11 section of town and treated the guests to a reception dinner before the ballet
My friend Jim passed away in 1989, but his memory lives on through the James Merritt Van Dyke Scholarship awarded to provide financial assistance to students furthering their dance education after high school. The scholarship was established in 1990 and 22 have been awarded since its inception.
My congratulations to Joan on her interest in teaching and providing the art of ballet to many young aspirants, and for the many national and state awards she’s received in her role as associate professor of dance at IUP. She has also had international recognition, which includes guest choreographer for the Dubrovnik International Festival Croatia in 2008, an invited faculty member for the 6th International Summer Festival in Athens, Greece, and an invited presenter at the International Dance Conference in Vancouver, B.C.
It goes without saying that her hometown and the sisters at Mount Gallitzin are very proud of her.
Used with permission and special thanks to Gino Piroli and the Beaver County Times.