Linda Thomson has been hired for four executive jobs in her career, and, in three of those roles, including currently as Johnstown Area Regional Industries’ president and CEO, she was the first female to ever hold the position.
Jackie Kulback remembers when Gautier Steel brought a third woman into the operation and the company decided that meant the time had finally come to install a ladies bathroom.
It was an era when Kulback, Gautier’s current chief financial officer and Cambria County Republican Committee chairwoman, believed she needed to “work twice as hard and put in a lot of extra time just to be treated equally,” while Thomson usually “felt a little bit of anxiety going in, knowing that I was the first female in the role.”
Julie Sheehan, board president of the Greater Johnstown Community YMCA, recalls those days when “there were women doing things, but, a lot of times, people didn’t feel they were credible unless a man was maybe making the big announcement.”
Nowadays, though, when Sheehan, Kulback and Thomson meet with community leaders, there are often other prominent and influential women in the group – working together to envision a new future for Johnstown and the surrounding region.
“It’s a drastic change. … Today, I think we’re just respected for what we know and how we do our job,” Thomson said. “And that’s really satisfying.”
Thanks to their trail blazing – and the efforts of other pioneers – a new generation of women is at the forefront of key sectors such as economic development, politics, tourism promotion and nonprofit management.
“There have definitely been transitions over the years as far as the amount of women in leadership positions,” said Johnstown Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Melissa Komar, Johnstown’s former interim city manager. “But I feel that we, as a community, as a whole, have definitely been welcomed with open arms. Just the working relationships that we’ve created with both males and females, we bring something to the table as far as balance.
“Because of the difference of opinions we may have, it works better for a positive end result with being able to work together as one.”
Amy Arcurio, superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District, said women of her generation are succeeding, in part, because they were raised with different expectations than their predecessors.
“I think it definitely is changing times,” Arcurio, a 1986 Greater Johnstown graduate, said. “We were raised by parents who didn’t pigeonhole us into believing that we could only be the teacher. They raised us that we could be the principal or we could be the superintendent. That helped.”
‘Seat at the table’
The process to gain acceptance can, sometimes, be drawn out, especially when dealing with what has been traditionally men’s fields – as Komar does when working with construction companies in her role with redevelopment.
“The first time I meet with them, it’s like all jokes,” Komar said. “And then, the second or third time, they start to buy into the fact that maybe she has a clue. And by the fourth or fifth meeting, we work together and they understand what my expectations are of them and they understand that I am in the position for a reason.”
Cambria County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Renee Daly has experienced similar cases – on occasion – when she felt extra effort was needed before some individuals would accept her as a leader with the knowledge necessary to be actively involved in construction projects.
“It’s not everywhere,” Daly said. “But, in some cases, it’s difficult to have a woman coming in, in a dress and high heels, talking about construction and showing up at sites – demolition sites or new development sites – where typically it’s a male’s version and they’re looking for jeans and work boots.”
Katie Kinka, a senior planner with the Cambria County Planning Commission, who received a graduate degree from Florida State University in 2013, still occasionally experiences issues such as dealing with others’ stereotypical expectations of women in the workplace.
“There are still definitely examples every day of – we’ll call it ‘sexism light’ – that you have to deal with, whether it’s in a professional setting or a more friendly, casual social setting,” Kinka said. “We still have a long way to go for making women and people of all genders feel really comfortable in the community and feel like they have a seat at the table.”
Kinka said inspiration can come from the past.
“It definitely helps when you don’t have to be the pioneer,” Kinka said.
“There are a lot of really strong powerful female voices in and around Johnstown and Cambria County. When you have someone who has paved the way like that, you can feel comfortable and confident versus in other places in other settings where you have to be the first, or your voice – even though it’s shaking – might have to be the loudest and you have to set that example for somebody else.”
Put another way, Melissa Radovanic, president of the Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership, said, “You have to be a little bit badass.
“We have expectations, at times, that are placed upon us that shouldn’t be ours to carry,” Radovanic said. “And it’s because we are female and – in some cases – we’re younger. Sometimes the male counterparts don’t have the same burdens.”
‘Provide a future here’
Around Johnstown, they are known simply as “the Melissas.”
Close friends, Radovanic and Komar work on countless projects to enhance the community. Both serve on the Greater Johnstown Community YMCA board of directors and were honored at the 2017 YWCA Greater Johnstown’s Tribute to Women.
Along with her full-time job, Komar is active in Junior Achievement and the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority.
Komar said she puts her effort into the city because “ultimately, my heart is here.”
“I’ve made that abundantly clear, time and time again,” Komar said. “To see the positivity be created with so many of our local volunteers and leaders, it shows that we are able to provide a future here.”
Melissa Radovanic (left), president of the Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership, talks with Melissa Komar, executive director of the Johnst…
Radovanic has worked almost two decades with Crown American Associates, currently as the director of marketing and community relations. She is active with the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau and recently joined the Greater Johnstown Water Authority board.
As president of the Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership, she has played a leadership role in developing the annual Taste & Tour event in May and Christmas season activities in Central Park, which features a 36-foot-tall animated tree attracting visitors to the downtown during the holiday season.
When talking about her inspiration, Radovanic said: “One of my key lines is, ‘What on earth are we here for if not to make our community better and to make it better for the next generation?’ So, I look at my volunteer efforts and my work efforts, as saying this is something that I’m doing for my kids to be able to stay in Johnstown – for my friends’ kids – and to leave a legacy to make a better community.”
Daly, likewise, said her inspiration comes from her two children, ages 5 and 6.
Her goal is “every day, waking up, trying to figure out what’s going to make a better place for them, provide a location for them to be able to have great outdoor activities, ability to do things during the day and the evening, have the opportunity to go to the local colleges and universities should they choose to do that, provide family-sustaining jobs for them and a place that they’re going to be proud to live and raise their families in the future.”
Kulback said she is driven by the thought: “ ‘If not me, then, who?’ Sometimes you’ve just got to put yourself out there and really step up and try and make things happen.”
‘Women are empowered’
Along with that sense of vision, many of the area’s prominent women leaders are motivated by a desire to “pay forward” the support they have received during their lives and careers.
“I just feel like this community has always helped me – by helping me to be employed – and there’s a lot of good people here,” said Tina Pelesky, former community relations director with Veteran Community Initiatives. “I’m a ‘give back’ kind of person, I think. I’ve always felt that way. I tried to get my kids to get more involved in volunteering. It’s just something that I grew up thinking was important, I guess.”
Their impact can be felt in business meetings, both small and large.
“Now, these women are empowered,” Sheehan said. “They’re not afraid to walk into a board room and let their voices be known.
“I raised four daughters here in town, and I see them out in their professional world, and they’re doing the same thing. They’re not afraid to walk into a meeting. Twenty-five years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
But their contributions are also often out front for the community to see in many forms, such as a rocking Christmas tree in Central Park and bands on stage at the AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival, said Shelley Johansson, marketing and communications director for Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
“When you are standing in the middle of an event that’s going well, like MusicFest, or a concert, or SlavicFest or something like that, and you’re looking around and you’re seeing people having a great time, you’re seeing the community come together to put something on,” she said, “because, certainly, many of the things that JAHA is involved with involves significant partners in the community – sponsors and media partners and committees, volunteers and so on – it’s kind of an amazing feeling to be able to know that you played a role in helping that to occur.”
JAHA organizes the popular Flood City Music Festival held each August.
“It’s always such a team effort,” Johansson said. “That will never get old for me.”
Many points of impact
The varied contributions of the area’s difference-making women are an essential part of the community’s identity.
Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan and her counterpart in Somerset County, Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, have spent years helping the region confront its opioid epidemic, while Ronna Yablonski has been involved in the same effort, as executive director of the Cambria County Drug Coalition.
Linda Rovder Fleming and Tamara Bernstein preside as judges in the Cambria County Court of Common Pleas. Cambria County public defender Maribeth Schaffer represents the accused.
The Rev. Sylvia King, Charlene Stanton and Marie Mock serve on Johnstown City Council.
Amanda Artim (Balance Restaurant), Jennifer Shearer (PRESS bistro), Camillya Taylor (Camille’s House of Styles Boutique), Sharon Honkus (Celestial Brides & Prom) and Michelle Geisel (The Vault Salon and Spa) own businesses in downtown Johnstown.
Dr. Susan Williams, chief medical officer for Conemaugh Health System, and Stella Somiari, director of the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine’s tissue bank, are leaders in the medical field.
Rose Lucy-Noll leads CamTran as its executive director.
Karen Esaias has supported those who have served in the military through her efforts with Veteran Community Initiatives.
Angela Godin (Community Arts Center of Cambria County), Mary Borkow (Roxbury Bandshell Preservation Alliance), Rosemary Pawlowski (Bottle Works), Vanessa Houser (Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art) and Laura Argenbright (Bottle Works) preserve history and celebrate art. Paula Eppley-Newman (Beginnings Inc.), Marlene Singer (Johnstown Walk of Hope), Cindy O’Connor (Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Office of Child and Youth Protection), Catherine Poorbaugh (Somerset County Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Outstanding Person of the Year) and Erika Brosig (Victim Services Inc.) provide comfort and support to those in need.
Susan Mann (1889 Foundation), along with Angie Berzonski, Pamela Tokar-Ickes and Katrina Perkosky at the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, are involved in philanthropic activities.
Emily Korns provides new entrepreneurs a place to establish themselves at Uptown Works, a co-working space in Somerset, while doubling as communications director for Conemaugh Health System.
At The Tribune-Democrat, Mary Anne Rizzo is the director of advertising, Christine Marhefka is the advertising sales manager, Joan Hunter is the director of human resources and Renée Carthew is the news editor, while Arlene Johns is the editor of Johnstown Magazine. Sharon Sorg is a CNHI regional publisher over Johnstown and four other markets.
Of course, there is Johnstown’s first lady, Joyce Murtha, who has been an ambassador for the city, supporting the community on her own and previously – side-by-side, as partners – with her husband, the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha.
Her contributions have saved countless lives through the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.
And that’s just to name a few of the women making positive impacts.
“I think that there are so many intelligent and talented women who really are making a difference and doing great work in the community,” said Lisa Rager, Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s director. “And some of them probably are doing a lot and they might not get the same kind of recognition as some of us that are seen in the media more frequently.
“There are a lot of women working behind the scenes and under the radar that may be aren’t recognized as well. But the work they’re doing in the community is really important for all of us.”
The CVB is an example of an organization where behind-the-scenes women are making a collective impact with Jayne Korenoski (director of advertising, sales and membership recruitment), Olivia Bragdon (communications coordinator) and Nicole Waligora (sports tourism program coordinator) all playing major roles.
Similarly, JARI is staffed almost exclusively by women, including Debi Balog, the director of workforce development.
Meanwhile, at the Cambria Regional Chamber, Amy Bradley (president/CEO), Debra Orner (vice president) and Jennifer Tiffany (membership coordinator) are helping foster local business growth.
Part of the chamber’s effort includes the Women’s Information Network, which Bradley described as “a great opportunity for women to network and then have some educational opportunities at the same time and just some fun.”
Bradley, who has been president for about a year, described her group’s future mission as “just going to continue to try to shake things up a little bit,” which is a sentiment that can apply to all of the women who are making a difference by envisioning a new future for the Johnstown area.