Friends of Pignatiello recall her spirit, drive
By Felicia Schwartz, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Recent graduate Stephanie Pignatiello ’12, who committed suicide on Thursday in her off-campus house in Hanover, was known among her friends for her intelligence, free spirit and strong opinions. Pignatiello was 21 years old and could be seen around campus sporting one of her two signature looks — a black cape in the winter or a black wide-brimmed hat in the summer.
Whether she was debating linguistics with her friends at Phi Tau coeducational fraternity or playing one of her favorite video games, those close to Pignatiello said she was passionate about her interests and relationships with her friends.
At Dartmouth, Pignatiello spent most of her time at Phi Tau, where she was a member.
“Phi Tau was her place,” Blaine Ponto ’14, a member of Phi Tau, said. “That was where she lived, where her circle of friends was, where she operated out of.” Pignatiello even had a pair of Phi Tau earrings, Ponto said.
Pignatiello was a dedicated student who graduated cum laude with a double major in linguistics and psychology and a minor in Chinese.
James Stanford, a linguistics professor and house advisor to Phi Tau, said he has many fond memories of Pignatiello in his classes and from when she tutored his son in computer programming and math.
“She was very friendly, helpful and had a natural curiosity about the world,” he said in an email to The Dartmouth. “She was an excellent student and an excellent friend.”
Pignatiello was very interested in linguistics and wanted to become a college linguistics professor, her father, Steve Pignatiello ’81, said.
“She said to me, ‘I love college and I love the whole college scene and I figured out the way to be in college for the rest of my life,’” he said.
Pignatiello was fluent in five languages — French, English, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, according to her father. French was her first language, and her parents only spoke French to her for the first two years of her life, he said.
Pignatiello was born in Asheville, N.C., and lived there until her parents divorced in 2004.
She moved to Wichita, Kan., with her mother and attended the Wichita Collegiate School for high school, where she excelled and went to nationals in the Science Olympiad two years in a row, Steve Pignatiello said.
When Pignatiello was inside Phi Tau, she was very lively and had “a complete lack of shame,” Ponto said.
Pignatiello turned into a different person outside of the house and was much more reserved, she said.
“She’s kind of one of those people that played it close to the vest,” Ali Krzton ’06, an alumnus of Phi Tau, said. “The people that were in different parts of her life didn’t necessarily know each other.”
When Pignatiello was in a good mood, she was full of energy and life, Phi Tau president Pavel Bacovsky ’13 said.
Many close to Pignatiello were surprised by her death but knew that Pignatiello suffered from feelings of depression, Ponto said.
While growing up, Pignatiello did things her own way, her father said.
“She was so much different than her peers,” he said. “She thought on a different level than everyone else. She had a hard time relating to people her own age.”
Pignatiello also had a unique way of speaking as if she were “in the Victorian age,” Steve Pignatiello said.
“It was really weird language for most people,” he said. “If you call her cell phone right now, her voicemail says, ‘I will get back to you when I am able.’”
Whit Spaulding ’89, the owner of Wheelock Books, where Pignatiello worked, said he appreciated her “theatrical flair” when they worked together.
“This is the kind of place where there’s a lot of time to talk,” Spaulding said. “Her dialogue was always so much fun. She kept the mood fun and lively for everybody.”
Pignatiello loved to party and was always the first to suggest a game of pong or to join Ponto in starting impromptu dance parties in Phi Tau’s chapter room, Ponto said.
Pignatiello’s pong paddle had a cake painted on it, a reference to the video game Portal, Ponto said.
“She was a tremendous nerd,” Ponto said. “She loved video games, Dungeons and Dragons — she was in a role-playing group she met with frequently and loved to play Skyrim.”
Pignatiello always wanted to be different, Bryant Prieur ’14 said. Prieur said that this was clear when she baked Thai curry peanut butter cookies for Phi Tau’s termly “Milque and Cookies” event.
“She made these really weird cookies every single term,” Prieur said. “Not everyone liked them, but I liked them. She was always persistently different. That was the Stephanie I knew.”
Pignatiello’s Phi Tau house name reflected her unique personality and love of French culture.
“Her house name was Antoinette, and she felt her French roots very strongly,” Ponto said. “We joked that she was the lady of the house.”
Ponto, who also worked with Pignatiello at Wheelock Books, said Pignatiello was a free spirit and complained about wearing shoes at work.
“She cared about freedom in a lot of things,” Ponto said. “Whether this was free love or that she didn’t like wearing pants — she only wore skirts and dresses.”
Pignatiello worked at Wheelock Books since her sophomore year and was training to start as the store’s next manager in August, Spaulding said.
She was a creative thinker and a great problem solver, Spaulding said.
“We had a problem with people going through the books in the middle shelves,” he said. “[Pignatiello] put a sign there that said, ‘Here there be zombies.’ It was funny, people got a real kick out of it.”
Pignatiello also fixed three computers that had not worked for anyone else in years, Spaulding said.
“Within a half hour everything was running perfectly and she said, ‘What’s the next issue?’” Spaulding said.
Working at Wheelock Books suited Pignatiello well because she loved to read, according to Rayna Levine ’10, a former manager of the store who first hired Pignatiello.
“She loved books, bookstores and the idea of the small independent bookstore,” Levine said in an email to The Dartmouth. “She loved to read fantasy novels and was more than happy to talk books with anyone.”
Pignatiello worked hard to develop the brotherhood of Phi Tau, according to James Oakley ’11, a former member.
“She had more emotional investment in it than quite probably anyone else,” Oakley said in an email to The Dartmouth.
Illustrating this commitment, Pignatiello went out of her way to befriend not only the current members of Phi Tau, but also alumni, vice president Colleen Cowdery ’14 said. Pignatiello was formerly the alumni chair of Phi Tau.
“Stephanie was sort of the official/unofficial greeter and face of the house for so many brothers,” Cowdery said. “So many of the alumni knew her and were close to her. She was always there and put a lot of time and effort into making people feel at home there. She made the house more cohesive.”
Lisa Chau ’06, who knew Pignatiello since her freshman year at Dartmouth, said she loved Pignatiello’s unwavering loyalty to Phi Tau alumni.
“She built really meaningful relationships with Phi Taus regardless of their graduation year, giving Phi Tau a strong legacy,” she said. “Her absence is painfully noticeable, and her dedication is unquestionable given the outpouring of grief I have seen over the past several days.”
Pignatiello was a symbol of Phi Tau, according to Bacovsky.
“She really did embody the ideals of Phi Tau as an organization of unity and diversity,” Bacovsky said.
Pignatiello loved to travel and traveled to five of the seven continents.
The summer before college she taught herself Japanese and spent the summer living with a family in Japan.
Pignatiello also loved Chinese culture, especially after going on the Foreign Study Program to Beijing.
She frequently cooked Chinese food and was involved with the Dartmouth Chinese Culture Society, Ponto said.
Pignatiello developed a taste for wine after spending time with winemakers connected to her father’s winemaking business. Before the Bejiing Foreign Study Program, she went to France for the summer and spent time with winemakers.
“She came back over the Pacific Ocean and circled the world,” her father said. “Not many people can say they have done that.”
Pignatiello’s body was found Thursday afternoon in her off-campus home, according to Hanover Chief of Police Nick Giaccone. The New Hampshire medical examiner’s office ruled the death a suicide.
Pignatiello is survived by her father, mother Gail Bayliss and sister Christina Pignatiello.