Wed to each other and to public service

Wed to each other and to public service
Robert Donno, of Manhasset, a volunteer with the Manhasset Rotary Club’s Gift of Life program for over 40 years.

When Plandome Manor Mayor Barbara Donno recalls the first time she was elected to in 2007, she points out what her husband, Robert, did to help.

“I remember him standing in the street and handing out fliers in the middle of road,” she said. “He was very supportive.”

“If she wanted me to go to a meeting or wanted me to do something else, I would do it,” said Robert Donno, the founder of the Manhasset Rotary Club’s Gift of Life, which for over 40 years has provided life-saving heart surgery to children in underdeveloped countries without access to modern healthcare. 

Many are familiar with these two visible members of the Manhasset community, but few may realize the way their relationship has enabled them to deepen their commitment to public service.

The couple met almost 50 years ago in the student center at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where both were undergraduates.

“He was playing cards and I was reading,” Barbara Donno said.

After both had graduated a year later, in 1969, they married and moved to Barbara Donno’s hometown of Easton, Penn.

Robert Donno spent six months in the National Guard, while Barbara Donno taught in local schools.

When Robert Donno returned, the couple moved to Northport so he could take over his father’s solid waste collection company, Donno Co. Inc., in Manhasset, which his family had founded in 1932.

Barbara Donno began teaching at a school in Smithtown.

Volunteerism was “not part of our life,” Barbara Donno said. “We were 22 or 23.”

Soon after, at age 25, Robert Donno joined the Manhasset Rotary Club in honor of his father, a longtime member who had just died of cancer.

“I got to see good people,” Robert Donno said. “My father had planted seeds and they watered them.”

Barbara Donno could not join the club at the time because it did not admit women but she supported her husband’s work from afar, she said.

In 1982, when the couple moved to Manhasset, Donno quit teaching to take care of the couple’s two young children.

Her interest in local politics “started through the children being in school,” she said.

Opposed to a new curriculum called “Whole Language,” which de-emphasized phonics and grammar, Barbara Donno ran for the Manhasset school board in 1995. She subsequently became vice president and president of the board, a position in which she served for four years.

“We fought to bring phonics and grammar back into the school district,” she said. “That was my first introduction to community service.”

Meanwhile, Robert Donno had founded and gotten deeply involved in the Manhasset Rotary Club’s Gift of Life Program.

The couple had traveled to Uganda together in 1980, just nine months after President Idi Amin was deposed.

“A cancer doctor was taking us through clinics,” Robert Donno said. “It was wall to wall people; we were stepping over bodies. The doctor said he had a cancer epidemic but it was all AIDS before the AIDS virus had been identified.”

The organization would later help some of the patients receive care.

“Barbara was always supportive of what I was doing with the Rotary,” he said. “She was involved.”

Today, the Gift of Life Program provides life-saving operations for over 2,000 patients each year, Robert Donno said.

A decade after her tenure on the Manhasset school board, Barbara Donno began attending Plandome Manor Board of Trustees meetings and decided to run for mayor.

“There were some issues going on in the village and I started speaking up about it,” she said. “I feel if I don’t like something and I’m going to say something about what I don’t like, need to be able to step up and do something about it.”

Since her first victorious campaign in 2007, she has served five terms as the mayor of Plandome Manor. She is seeking a sixth term in village elections on March 21.

“I love being mayor,” she said. “I think more than anything you have the most impact on residents and the village at the local level.”

She also worked full-time in the district office of state Sen. Jack Martins, and now works part-time for his successor representing the 7th District, Elaine Phillips.

“I comically say to friends she’s domestic affairs and I’m foreign affairs,” Robert Donno said. “She has a strong belief in community and that’s where her interests lie. I’m out there and a world traveler and I believe in world peace.”

“The key thing is bringing people together,” he added. “My wife and I have had a passion and belief that you can complain about how things are or point in another direction, but you start with yourself and what you can do.”

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