Mary Romanello was born with a heart for helping people.
As early as second grade, Romanello began donating the proceeds of her neighborhood lemonade stand to charitable organizations. In middle school, she organized bake sales to raise money for various causes. By the time she graduated from high school, she had founded an international nonprofit, Spread Love, that currently sponsors 12 children in far-flung locales such as Uganda, Ghana, Taiwan, Thailand and Congo.
“We also work with a school in Madagascar – my brother is in Madagascar right now, actually. We donate money and he picks up supplies for the school,” Romanello said. “I’ve always had a passion for serving others. It’s just my purpose, I think.”
Preparing for a career in public service, Romanello found a perfect fit at Christopher Newport University, which has established service to the community beyond its perfectly manicured campus as a core element of its broader academic mission.
After holding leadership roles in Student Government Association for all four years at CNU, and frequently interacting with members of the Newport News City Council, she concluded that local government provided the best chance to make a direct, positive and lasting impact on citizens’ lives.
Romanello graduated last year with a degree in Political Science, then completed a year-long residential fellowship at CNU. She was contemplating her next move when she saw a posting on LinkedIn seeking applicants for Chesterfield’s new Stegmaier Public Service Fellowship.
“I thought, ‘This is the opportunity of a lifetime,’” she recalled.
Earlier this year, the county’s Learning & Performance Center proposed the creation of a fellowship program that would provide young professionals an opportunity to learn and experience local government while creating a pipeline for new talent joining the organization.
The Stegmaier Public Service Fellowship was created in memory of the late James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier, whose 37-year career with Chesterfield began as a budget analyst and ended as county administrator. It offers a two-year rotation in departments within a division for exposure, hands-on experience, and individualized learning, with a goal that the fellow applies for a position to establish a career with Chesterfield.
Remembered fondly as a genuine, caring leader who was passionate about public service and ethical governance, Stegmaier died in January 2022.
“Jay cared deeply and advocated tirelessly for the county’s talented workforce. As such, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to him than the establishment of this fellowship, which will attract and train the next generation of Chesterfield employees,” said Deputy County Administrator for Finance and Administration Matt Harris, who worked closely with Stegmaier and maintained a friendship with him until his passing.
Following several months of recruitment, Romanello was selected from among a field of bachelor’s and master’s degree candidates and began work July 10 as Chesterfield’s inaugural Stegmaier fellow.
“Everybody who knew Mr. Stegmaier knew his heart for people. I have so much respect for him and I take this title very seriously because there is true meaning behind it – this fellowship was created because of the legacy he left,” she said. “I’ve been learning all about him and it’s a great honor to represent his name in this position.”
Stegmaier’s widow, Margot, has been invited to address the Board of Supervisors during its meeting next Wednesday, when Romanello will be formally introduced to the public.
“Jay never wanted the spotlight on him – he only wanted what was good for the county. He felt his calling was to try and improve people’s lives,” Margot Stegmaier said. “He strongly believed in local government, and its future lies in the integrity, honesty and intelligence of young people who pursue careers in public service.”
Chesterfield is considering an expansion of the fellowship program to create additional opportunities for aspiring public servants in other areas of the county government.
In the meantime, Romanello thinks the next two years will be “a huge growth moment” in helping to shape the direction of her career in local government.
“It’s a matter of ‘Where do I belong?,’ but also what will challenge me and challenge the county to think ‘Where will she grow the most’ and ‘How can we use her as a public servant to make a difference?’” she said. “I think we’re still figuring it out, but I’m excited about that.”