THE AUGUST 2013 BULLS EYE FEATURE: Marlene Z. Asselta
Marlene Asselta has spent more than half of her adult life as one of South Jersey’s most recognizable cheerleader.
The Vineland native, who will (unbelievably) turn 70 in October, has been at the helm of the Southern New Jersey Development Council since 1985 and her 28-year tenure is arguably among the longest of any major NGO leader in the region.
While some might believe that her “passion” is the Development Council…or South Jersey…or maybe her beloved hybrid tea roses, they would be wrong. Even though her first choice for a new career would be as a “flower shop owner,” Asselta’s passion is clearly her grandson, Jimmy.
Ask her what her “favorite thing to do” is and she says “tuck my grandson into bed and watch him fall asleep.”
Ask her what event created the “most significant emotional reaction” on her part in the past year and she says “watching my grandson pitch in the last inning of his Little League playoff game.”
So, while Jimmy may or may not appreciate that he’s the apple of his “Nonna’s” eye, the region certainly acknowledges Asselta as its most relentless cheerleader.
The Development Council is at the core of Asselta’s professional life, and events such as “Sound Off for South Jersey,” “Construction Forecast,” and “Day on the Delaware” are on everyone’s calendar as “can’t miss” events—attracting hundreds every winter, spring, and summer, respectively.
In fact, under her leadership, the SNJDC has grown to more than 350 member organizations and more than 700 members reaching from South Jersey to Central and Northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and beyond.
A Vineland native, Asselta is a registered lobbyist who knew “early on” that her career path would lead her to public service.
She started out as the administrative aide to the mayor of Vineland, and then served as Director of Volunteer Services for Newcomb Hospital.
By 1984, Asselta was working as the Director of Government Affairs for Cumberland County, expanding her involvement to include the entire South Jersey region.
Combining her career with civic responsibility, Asselta has made volunteerism part of being a good corporate citizen. She has presided over the Deborah F. Sager Memorial Fund, served as vice president of Planning and Development of the Atlantic City International Equestrian Festival, and was appointed chair of the Gloucester County Library Commission. During her tenure as the Chairwoman of the GCLC, she oversaw the design and erection of the new library headquarters in Mullica Hill.
Other volunteer associations have included New Jersey Future; the South Jersey Freeholders Association; the NJ Industrial Developers Association; the Burlington/Cumberland County Women’s Conference Steering Committee; the Rowan University Friends of the Arts Board; the Delaware River Port Authority Economic Advisory Committee; and Leadership NJ, class of ’89.
In 1990, Asselta and her husband, tennis professional Sean Sloane, founded the South Jersey Open, a United States Tennis Association sanctioned amateur tournament still operating today. Also created through the SJ Open was the SJ Tennis Council, which provides tennis lessons to children from the southern New Jersey region and also elects into the SJ Tennis Hall of Fame worthy tennis coaches and professionals from throughout the region.
As a member of Calvary Hill Church and school board member of the adjoining Ambassador Christian Academy, Asselta led a fund raising effort to bring the school into a positive financial operating status.
In addition, working with the leadership of the Church, Asselta was instrumental in assisting with the municipal and county regulations that had previously prevented a new addition to the school and a separate facility for the congregation’s youth programs.
Asselta was also a Founding Member and Chairwoman of the Glassboro Economic Development Corporation (GEDC). Through Asselta’s leadership and working together with local, State and Federal government officials, the GEDC was the recipient of more than $2 million in grants for economic development, business attraction and retention, façade improvements and transportation projects.
More recently, Asselta was named to the Advisory Board at the University of Medicine & Dentistry in Stratford.
She has won numerous awards including the New Jersey State Jaycee’s Outstanding Young Woman of the Year Award; the Vineland Children’s Residential Center’s Citizens Award, and The Press of Atlantic City’s Women of Distinction Award, NJ BIZ’s magazine’s 50 most influential women in New Jersey, the 2008 Girl Scout Award for “Women of Distinction” and the “Policy Makers in the Garden State” award presented by the Executive Women of New Jersey.
While public service is clearly an Asselta hallmark, it is not as evident that she is also a huge sports fan. But, if you ask her to complete this sentence: “I am a _________,” she fills in the blank is with two words—“sports fan.” So maybe she can be forgiven for loving the Packers (she was a fan of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke) because she also loves the Eagles…and every other Philadelphia professional team.
Her mother, Mary Zanni, is 95 years old and was a seamstress for a clothing factory for army defense contractors, and her father, Italian immigrant Tullio Zanni, now deceased, owned a used car lot.
Asselta worked on what began as her in-law’s 85-acre produce farm in Minotola for 20 years, harvesting beans, parsley, lettuce, cucumbers, egg plant, watermelons, and sweet potatoes.
As a child, she always wanted to be a lawyer and, in fact, she worked at a law firm when she was just 14 years old.
She met her husband, Sean (who is the tennis coach at Haverford College and is always telling her that she’s a “cupcake”), through a dating service and their first date was at Winberie’s in Princeton.
Asselta has two children, daughter Jane (who works with her mother at SNJDC) and son Jimmy, and one grandchild, Jimmy.
What she knows now that she wishes she’d known then is “myself,” and she feels that the best part of her job is “playing a role in the development of projects around South Jersey.”
The worst part, she adds, is “seeing firsthand the struggles of small and medium sized business in our region’s depressed economy.”
Asked why someone would want to meet her, she replies “I’ll find a way to help them,” and asked about he best advice she has ever received, Asselta says, “Well, it wasn’t directly spoken to me, but Maya Angelou has said, ‘Believe what people tell you about themselves, because it’s true.’”
If you want to know what really makes her angry, she’ll tell you “I can’t tolerate the less fortunate being mistreated or bullied, especially children and pets.”
Her business philosophy is “I’d rather give than get,” her toughest decision is “firing employees,” and she says that she measures success “by the number of people willing to help you.”
The dumbest thing Asselta says she ever did was “take my parents convertible for a joy ride when I was 15 years old,” her goal yet to be achieved is to “lose 5 pounds” and her greatest fear is “Alzheimer’s.”
If she could do one thing to change South Jersey, Asselta says it would to see the region (and the country) “return to the work ethic of the l940’s and 50’s.”
Finally, her epitaph (as she would like it to be written): “Tough but fair.”