By Pete Kennedy
When Nancy Matteo was growing up in northeast Philadelphia, her neighborhood was growing too. Homes were still being constructed in her development, and she would venture into the woods to find spare drywall dumped by the builders.
“We figured out that if you peeled the cardboard off both sides, the inside was chalk,” she said. “I would have all the neighborhood kids sitting on the curb, and I would chalk in the street. I taught them everything I knew — the alphabet, how to read, addition and subtraction.”
Matteo, 63, is now the president of St. Andrew School, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade Catholic school in Newtown, Bucks County. She previously worked as a principal and teacher there.
Her philosophy is simple: “Education must be as enjoyable as possible to make it memorable.”
“I’ll talk to former students, who have kids of their own, and they’ll say, ‘Mrs. Matteo, I’ll never forget how to spell dessert, because you told us the two S’s stand for strawberry shortcake,’” she said.
Matteo is a product of Catholic education herself. She graduated from Nazareth Academy in Philadelphia, studied education and Spanish at Holy Family University, and earned her master’s degree in educational leadership from Gwynedd Mercy University.
Between her years as student and educator, she moved to Texas with her husband, Richard.
The couple met when they both worked in Woodhaven Mall — he managed a shoe store, and she worked at a fabric shop. She stopped by his store one day for a simple dye job, and Richard stretched it out for weeks.
“Every other day I’d go back, ‘Are my shoes done?’ ‘Oh, not yet,’” she said.
Eventually, Richard parlayed the shoe job into a date. They’ve been married 41 years.
Richard’s work for Payless Shoes took the newlyweds to Texas.
“There’s not a lot of Italian culture in Dallas,” she said. “It was really difficult to find good Italian food, or even ingredients. And because I have a northeastern accent and I’m Italian, people right away assumed I knew the mafia.”
They fared better in San Antonio, where she and Richard were thrilled to discover a huge Italian festival with authentic Italian food. Sitting at a picnic table, they noticed a man sitting near them with a small Eagles insignia on his shirt — a fellow Philly transplant who helped introduce them to the local Italian-American society.
“He became one of our best friends. He’s my daughter’s godfather,” Matteo said.
After the births of their son and daughter, the Matteos decided to move back to Philadelphia, so their children would know their grandparents. Matteo began substitute teaching before being hired as a second-grade teacher at St. Andrew. After 11 years in the classroom, she spent a year running the school’s pre-kindergarten program. The monsignor then asked her to serve as St. Andrew’s principal, a job she loved and held for 16 years. In 2012, she received the Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).
In 2019, the school switched to a new administrative model, and Matteo was named president. In the new role, she focuses on the spiritual health of the school, as well as fundraising, admissions, strategic planning, alumni relations and the facilities management.
“I’m really enjoying it. The only drawback is I don’t get to work as much with the children,” she said. “But I do bus duty in the morning and afternoon.”
If the dawn of her teaching career was the curbside lessons using makeshift chalk, Matteo said she’s now enjoying its twilight.
She has won three Distinguished Principal awards: one from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, one from the National Catholic Educators Association and one from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Her husband is retired, and their children — Richard Jr. and Laura — are grown with families of their own.
In their Langhorne home, she has carried on traditions of Italian cooking that she grew up with. As a child, she didn’t know turkey was the traditional centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner.
“We would go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and then to my grandmothers. We would start with escarole soup, then homemade gnocchi, homemade ravioli,” she said. “I always saw a turkey, too, but who could eat turkey after all that?”
Matteo has always been a voracious reader, but she recently started working on a book project of her own. She’s collecting short stories, cartoons and other offerings related to Italian culture that she plans to publish under the title “Escarole Soup for the Italian Soul.”
Her late father — a wine connoisseur, die-hard Flyers fan and first-generation Italian American — helped motivate her to pursue the book project.
“My father was very proud of us, but always pushed us. He said, ‘What’s next, Nancy?’” she said. “I told him, ‘I think I’ve got a best-seller in me.’”
If you would like to submit an item for consideration for inclusion in “Escarole Soup for the Soul,” please email Nancy at email@example.com