CCSU’s Gerontology program and Writing Minors have teamed to gather stories from older adults who share challenges they have faced that shaped their lives. They provide insights into how they handled war, AIDS, divorce, racism, sexism, disputed elections and more! Read their narratives below and be inspired by their resilience and optimism.
Do you know of an older adult who wants to share a story? We are eager to hear from people from all walks of life with a broad range of experiences. We welcome quiet stories of everyday life as well as more dramatic tales of wrestling with major challenges. We welcome anything that sheds light on our shared humanity in these hard times.
For more information about participating in this program, contact Professor Mary Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Our Stories
"I'm just learning what it means to be old. 94 years is a long damn time.”
I met Ollie at CCSU on a beautiful fall day. She parked her car, opened the door and sat quietly for several minutes. Concerned, I approached to check on her and she waved me off saying "I need to finish listening to this." It was the live radio broadcast of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. Ollie, is a "flaming liberal" and Navy veteran who graduated with a law degree from Howard University in 1948 -- one of four women in her class. In those days, teaching was a more usual profession for women. Ollie explained that she graduated high school and was able to go to Hunter College in New York City. Today she feels that the country is going backwards. Hunter, one of four colleges in the city, was totally free. All you had to do was get good enough grades to get in. She thinks it is terrible that now we are just beginning to consider free higher education in community college now.
Ollie wasn’t considered a pioneer in her family; that title had been earned earlier by her older sister, Lillian Wheeler, also an alumnus of Howard University, who became a physician.
Early Life - Family Struggles with Poverty and Illness
I was born in New York City in 1925. My mother left the farm in Manassas, VA at eighteen to come to New York to go to nursing school. This was an impossible ambition for a black girl with the limited education she received in Virginia. Even if she had been better prepared, it would be extremely difficult for her. Harlem Hospital was the only facility she could hope to attend, since other hospitals and other nursing training schools did not accept Blacks in those days.
A young innocent girl in the big city, she became pregnant and had my sister Lillian in 1917. Her choice at that point was to go back to the country with her baby or try and support her as a single mom with no job prospects. She sent Lillian back home and cleaned other people’s houses for a living.
In a few years, she married Oliver a bricklayer, a member of the bricklayer’s union. When the Depression hit, he couldn’t get work. Nobody could get work. The Depression lasted until World War II.
My mother worked hard, really hard, during the Depression. White men couldn’t get work. So obviously Black men couldn’t get work so she supported the whole family, by taking care of other people’s homes, cooking, she could really cook, and doing their laundry. She sewed everything I wore. Even in law school I still wore a skirt she made while I was in high school. She eventually got a job taking care of little babies through the Sheltering Arms Organization.” *
Studies in the field show that babies needed to be held and often would die even when nothing was physically wrong with them if they weren't physically held. She was good at nursing abandoned and/or neglected babies back to health.
I didn’t meet my sister until I was 8 years old when my grandmother died and she was too much for my grandfather. My mother brought her home then. Roberta knew and preached to us that we had to get a good education.
I was twelve when my father left us in 1937. I thought he was the greatest. He taught me how to ride a bike, how to ice skate, we walked all over New York together. A subway cost five cents and we didn’t have that. When he left I felt it deeply. My sister lived in Washington with my aunt by this time. She attended Howard University while I attended high school, I helped out with the babies my mother nursed back to health. I remember cleaning all the diapers in bleach and hot, hot water. To this day I call refrigerators “ice boxes.” We were the last to get a washing machine in the neighborhood. After spending my adolescent years taking care of all of those babies, I didn’t plan to ever have any of my own. I was going to have a career. Any career.
College, Military, Family
At one point in her childhood, Lillian was diagnosed with TB [tuberculosis} caused by a virus in unpasteurized milk on my grandfather’s farm. She was quarantined with many others on an island fortwo-to-three years. It was there she decided she wanted to be a doctor. She saw how the doctors there were the “top dogs” and she wanted this. She was strong willed, like my mother and unlike me, she knew what she wanted to do at an early age. So during her time at Howard, she was premed, and she went on to become a doctor.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. I attended Hunter College in New York City. Hunter College was free. There were free colleges in each borough. You needed good marks in high school to get in. This is an issue we should be fighting for today.
I and all my friends all thought we would be doctors, but after I matriculated, I knew I couldn’t do math or science well enough for this. My best friend was a straight A student, who wanted to do scientific research, and couldn’t get into a single program because of her race and gender.
In my day there was a fairly well known reason for many white girls to go to college. They wanted a husband to take care of them and a “marriage degree.” I don’t know of any Black woman who felt that way. They expected to work while married. After Hunter College, I went to law school at Howard University. Studying political science had given me an interest in law. Thurgood Marshall and Anna Pauline Murray had graduated from Howard and I studied with great professors who had taught them, such as Charles Houston.
Afterward, having a degree was not enough to get a job. No one was interested in hiring a Black woman lawyer. Even to successfully open your own office, you needed a relative or mentor to assist you or get advice from. It is hard to get established and I never found a way into practicing the law. I opened my own law office in Washington DC, but I didn’t like practicing and I could not make a living. I took a job with the Labor Department and moved my mother down to Washington and bought a little house where we lived together. I adored her, but I had to establish myself independently and move out on my own. So I joined the Navy. As a lawyer, I was commissioned as an Ensign.
My heart wasn’t in the Navy and I didn’t do well there. It wasn’t the career for me. When we listed our choices of where we wished to be stationed, posts in California and overseas were first on my list. I ended up assigned as an investigating officer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the last place I wanted to be. I had hoped to travel. But that is where I met my husband. He was my yeoman (that’s a secretary!) and he was brilliant but had only a high school diploma, so when he enlisted he was only a seaman. This was a BIG secret affair. Officers were NOT supposed to fraternize with non-officers. It was quite a love story. When my hitch ended, I got an honorable discharge, and so did he despite all this.
Back in New York, where we had both grown up, we moved in together but I resisted marriage. It was the fifties, and we were non-conformists. Melvin won my mother’s approval, but his Orthodox Jewish family didn’t accept me. Between the difference in education, race and religion, many people thought we would not last. I worked for the city for the first few years at HUD [Housing and Urban Development], and Melvin worked for the family-owned Daitch’s Grocery Stores, working his way up to management in a couple of years.
I wasn’t sure I ever wanted a family, and had never wanted children, but at the age of thirty my biological clock decided I did want to have a child. We married. Mel was a hard worker but he realized he would never break through to the top rank of the company because he wasn’t a member of the Daitch family.
He started various business ventures, first a landscaping business, then a diner, and finally a trucking company. That trucking business was the one that enabled us to raise and educate our children. I raised the children and was a sort of happy housewife. I never thought of the work I did, primarily as the dispatcher and accountant in the home office of our trucking company as a job. It had to be done. We were able to pay the private school where I insisted my children had to go. I did not trust the public schools. We had purchased a house in Hempstead Long Island, not an area where neighbors paid high taxes for their schools.
Social Work & Contribution to AIDs epidemic
When my youngest started school, I decided to get a job. The AIDS pandemic had just begun. AIDS was similar to Covid in the beginning in that they didn’t know where it came from or how to treat it. Eventually they found out: drugs primarily and homosexual activity, so many died--so many. Again that crisis was similar to the current crisis in that the city had a vast amount of AIDS sufferers and needed to do something about it. In time it was determined that the medicines that they were experimenting with would not be effective if you were living on the street. The patients needed significant care. This created a need for housing and I became a director for several housing programs for people with AIDS. The tenants already living in the apartment buildings didn't want people with AIDS living near them. They had bad reputations. To rent and furnish the apartments and encourage the drug addicts to change their life style was the job. In the beginning, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence but eventually the doctors succeeded in conquering that virus as they will with Covid 19.
One woman still calls me, her AIDs is undetectable. She and her children are all doing well. When I first met her she was a drug addict and my co-workers did not feel that she would cooperate. Maybe I was naïve but I felt she would be okay. She really loved her children. Her youngest boy is in college now.
Politics & Voting across the Years
I was listening to a congressman or senator talking about the Supreme Court nomination hearings. It is so painful to me that the Republicans have descended so far, and are so bogged down. Everyone knows they should have waited for the election to confirm the new Justice.
I remember all my work as a poll worker for many years. During the years I was a housewife I was an active member of the Democratic Party. I attended meetings, knocked on doors, licked envelopes etc. When I knocked at doors I would try to explain to those reluctant to vote that if you don’t vote, you are essentially voting. You are not making your voice heard.
As bad as it is now, as obvious as it is now, that one party is not doing what it should do, "selling itself down the river" it is important to vote. I have been expecting the start of a new political party, and am surprised it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe after this election, it will start. The Green Party has possibilities. The Working Families Party is getting stronger in New York.
When I began voting, at age 21, politics seemed just as horrible as they are today. There were minimal differences between the two political parties for people of color. Both candidates were clearly racist and usually money grabbing. I voted Democrat in every election, but I didn’t love every candidate, and the ones I did love, Adlai Stevenson and Ralph Nader, were defeated. I often suffered -- especially in the early years -- trying to decide which candidate was the lesser of two evils. That is who I would vote for. I didn’t care for Taft or Truman. I didn’t like Ike. Kennedy was interesting, but Johnson was a southerner. Carter was a Southern Democrat which was not a selling point for me. In the end he proved to be a good man, and a good President, but when he first ran, I didn’t trust him. I chose him because Gerald Ford was worse. This election is not like that. I have no difficulties: it’s an easy choice.
My mother never understood how her sister could live in Washington DC, where they didn’t get the right to vote in the presidential election until 1960. To encourage people to vote I have been involved with the UUA--Unitarian Universalist Association-- letter writing campaign asking people to vote. I have sent 200 letters, in my own handwriting, explaining the reasons I feel people should vote. It is my mother that made sure I knew how important it was. She worked at the polls every election. The opening line on all the letters that I wrote was: “I would hope you would vote because it is only since 1965 that law enabling blacks to vote was passed.”
In person interview conducted by Allison Rose, recorded with permission from Ida “Ollie” Cohen, October 20, 2020. Story edited for length and flow by Allison Rose and Bobby Cohen.
*Sheltering Arms founded in 1831. www.shelteringarmsnyc.org
“We all worked together to survive. Mother and Daddy worked so hard and loved us so much, I never really complained.”
Great Depression, Navy WAVE in World War II
Connie grew up in New England during the Great Depression the second oldest of nine in an extended family that often included two grandmothers and an uncle, all supported by her father’s salary as a chemical engineer for a paper company. She recalls hungry nights and hard times, but also acknowledged that as a young girl she never felt bad about it because everyone around them also struggled and at least her father had a job. She escaped the poverty by joining the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in World War II, which brought her from West Springfield to Washington, DC to draft maps. After the war, she used the G.I. Bill to pay for her education at Boston University. She met her husband, James Francis Collins, also a veteran, in Boston; he attended Harvard Law School on the GI Bill and eventually became a Superior Court judge for Connecticut. Together Connie and Jim engaged in a lively political career and served as delegates at national conventions and took part in two congressional campaigns. Jim, an Irish Catholic raised in Hartford by Democratic Mayor Bill Rankin didn’t want to keep waiting for the chance to run so he ran as a Republican, knowing he’d lose, but they both loved politics and made friends on both sides of the aisle.
The Great Depression Hits Pawtucket, Rhode Island
- CRASH. Everyone’s life changed. My life and relationship with Dad and Mother and their relationship with each other…Well, their world crumbled. Dad had to go to a job he hated—he hated working for someone else—and Mother now had six children to handle in an atmosphere of stress and unhappiness. She went from a single-family home with help in a neighborhood she loved, to a three-family house and life with an unhappy, discouraged husband.
By 1933 mother had two more babies bringing the total number of children to eight. From time to time an out-of-work uncle would live with us as well as the two grandmothers. But Mother worked very hard to try to give us as much free time as possible. But as the second oldest girl I had a lot of chores. There was little time for playing with dolls. Babies needed bathing, clothes needed washing, dishes needed cleaning. When Mother wasn’t feeling well, she’d keep me or Shirley [her older sister] home to iron. It took a whole day to iron for the family. The kids had been sent off to school except for me and Shirley and Tommie, who was just 4. The parish priest came by to scold me for being out of school. I said, “My Mother is very sick, go see her in the bedroom.” When he left, he just blessed me and said he hoped I could go to church tomorrow.
Sometimes Mother would make just cupcakes and purposely leave them out so we’d spoil our dinner—because there was no dinner. We were told to tell Dad we had eaten. Mother saved the meat for him.
One time my Mother asked if I had any money stashed away; I was always saving any penny that came my way so I had 78 cents. It had taken me a year to save them. 78 cents would buy quite a bit back then. I gave her the pennies and we had meat that week.
We all worked together to survive. Mother and Daddy worked so hard and loved us so much, I never really complained.
ENLISTING AS A WOMAN IN THE NAVY IN WORLD WAR II
I was finishing up my shift as a short order cook [at a Dutchland Farms in Springfield, MA] when all of a sudden the air just filled with, ‘The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!’ The restaurant became absolutely quiet. Everyone was stunned. Then there was all this commotion of people in a panic trying to get out. They left their food, everything. They wanted to get home.
I was only 17. Seventeen in those days was innocent, young, not worldly at all. I had no concept of what it all meant. My parents fixated on the boys [Terry, the oldest, and Richard]. But in 1942 when the Navy announced that they needed women to sign up to fill key positions, and would receive equal pay and rank, all hell broke loose in Congress, the media, and town halls. The debate was bitter. But the critics lost because of the acute manpower shortage.
They [her parents] did not want me to go but I needed their permission because I was only 20. Men had to be 18 but women had to be 21.
Mother had been an accomplished artist and musician—she went to the Boston School of Fine Arts and played with the Boston Symphony as a young woman—but gave all of that up when she had her large family. She convinced my dad to let us [Shirley also enlisted] go. She knew we’d have our room and board paid for. But it was a great loss to her; we helped out a lot.
“I want you to go,” she said. Still brings tears to my eyes, that huge sacrifice she made.
I intentionally failed the typing test and wound up in the Hydrographic office in Suitland, Maryland outside of Washington, DC making maps for pilots. [She had worked for a year in Springfield as a draftswoman prior to enlisting.]
I hadn’t really seen anything. Washington was WOW! We used to sing funny songs, like “I joined the WAVES to see the world and what did I see, I saw DC,” but DC was a fantastic place to be as far as I was concerned.
Editor Note: After the war, Connie use the G.I. Bill to secure a college education, something her family never could have afforded on their own.
Interview edited for length and narrative flow by Professor Mary Collins
Charlie Drao was born into a musical family and became an entertainer and comedian as a young man in the 40’s and 50’s. As the culture of entertainment changed, and he started a family, he segued into a successful career in business, particularly the music instrument business. He faced significant challenges in the 1970's and 1980's as he was widowed, raising two teenagers and had to find multiple jobs as a result of the economic downturn in the 80s.
I was born in 1934 during the middle of the Depression in Queens, New York, and lived my young life in Brooklyn. My father was from Palermo Sicily and came over in 1903 at five-years-old.
I had three brothers and one sister. My dad had a lucrative job working in the soda fountain business at lunch [counters] and ice cream shops. He was a top management guy but during the Depression the company went out of business. We lost our house and moved to Brooklyn. By the time I came along, as the youngest of five, well, [there was less supervision].
My three older brothers all served in the military yet none were ever sent out of the country. The oldest was a Marine in World War II and served at Parris Island, South Carolina for three years; the other two were drafted for the Korean War.
Surrounded by Music
We were all musicians! Being Italian my dad liked the idea of music in the family. He chose the instruments for us. We had drums, sax, trumpet and I played the violin. We were taught to play at the New York School of Music and took lessons for 50 cents each (it was cheap!). This was in the 1940's.
But I hated the violin. I asked my brother to teach me to play the saxophone, and he did.
Finally, I told my Dad that I didn’t want to play violin anymore and that I could play the sax. He said "show me" and I played "That's My Desire." I always remember the song.*
I was not really interested much in school but there was a new school starting, the High School of Performing Arts. I was in the first graduating class of 1952 at 17. There were 40-50 kids in that first class. This was in the old building on 46th at 6th / 7th street. They merged with the Music and Arts School about 20 years ago. I still get the newsletters. You know this is the school from that TV show, FAME.
Being an Entertainer & Comedian
I was not interested in going to college - or even high school. During high school I would go to the stage shows and see famous big bands. I had a quick wit and would take the premise of acts from famous people. All the comedians borrowed jokes from each other. I took Henny Youngman's act, who took it from Jack Benny. Today, comedy is very different.
When I was 15 or 16, I auditioned for an amateur TV talent show called the “Paul Whiteman Show.” He was a bandleader from the 20s. By this time my father had sort of forgot about me because I was last on the line so I just took care of myself. I remember walking around the building getting up the nerve to go in and audition. And I got on the show! I played the clarinet and told jokes but I didn't win. This was before I graduated from high school.
Meanwhile my brother, a friend and I formed a trio called The Tune Jesters. I started working in nightclubs at 15/16 years old. Many groups did comedy too. For about two years we traveled around to Canada, the Northeast, & Midwest. Then my brother got married so he didn’t want to travel anymore. I was working in the music field and I always liked comedy so I decided to do a comedy / emcee act. This worked until the 70s. At that point the comedy thing changed from working in a floor show with little bands and emceeing with comedy, dance, or magic into comedy clubs.
Shifting to a Business Career and the Economic Downturn
While working the clubs I also worked in a bank as a day job. I settled down and got married at 21. Because I was funny and outgoing, I was sent on the road soliciting consumer loans. Eventually I was promoted and running Brooklyn / Queens with 25 guys in sales working for me. It was not a commission job and so I moved on. Sold insurance: hated it. Sold business machines, which I liked. Then I became a manager at Sam Ash Music Stores.** From there I had an offer from music instruments wholesaler C. Bruno and Son in Long Island. They had been in business for over 100 years. They were purchased by Kaman in the 70s. When Kaman closed the New York operation my family and I relocated to Connecticut. I held several roles with increasing responsibilities there but in 1986 when Kaman downsized the business I was let go.
The kids hated to move from Long Island and then my wife died of cancer in 1980 at age 45. The kids were teenagers; it was very hard to cope with for the first year.
A few years later I was set up on a blind date with my current wife Sheila. We have been married for 39 years (the same age as my oldest grandson!). I was heading to the city to meet with my sales team and always took them out for dinner on my expense report. But this time one of my sales guys invited me to his house for dinner even though I knew his wife hated to cook. Anyway, I met Sheila there and we hit it off.
The economy was bad in the 80's and I lost my job. I opened a franchise hair salon called Fantastic Sams, and ran that for four years. It was not very lucrative, a competitor opened another franchise too close to ours. I sold it back to the franchise owner and the other went bankrupt. There were 36 stores; the premise was to do haircuts cheaper. We had 6 female hairdressers and one guy. The gossip was unbelievable we used to say "how the stomach turns."
I worked again selling musical instruments for several companies and finally at age 65 I had enough traveling and worked part time for a food distributor delivering food to grocery stores. I called on supermarkets until I was 70 for P & G. I worked for a young Chinese American kid; he was 22 years old.
Then I became a housekeeper while Sheila continued to work. My grandson became sick as a young teen with [Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS)]. I took care of him every day for two years so my daughter could work. I made him breakfast and lunch. We played games and bought him Adam Sandler movies which he loved. Today he is in sales, married and a father.
In person interview conducted by Allison Rose, recorded with permission from Charlie Drao, November 8, 2020. Story edited for content and flow by Allison Rose.
*"That's My Desire" is a 1931 popular song with music by Helmy Kresa and lyrics by Carroll Loveday. The highest-charting version of the song was recorded by the Sammy Kaye orchestra in 1946, although a version of the song recorded by Frankie Laine has become better known over the years, being one of Laine's best-known recordings. From <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That%27s_My_Desire>
**Sam Ash Music has been serving musicians since 1924, proudly offering the best service, selection and guaranteed lowest prices on all of your musical needs. Our selection of top-brand music and sound is second to none - we stock the latest and greatest from all of the top brands in guitars, amps, drums, keyboards, pro sound, dj and band and orchestral instruments. https://www.samash.com/help/about-us
"It was all I knew, working. I really wanted to work until I was 80."
Sheila Drao was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941. Her father was from a large German family and ran a very successful commercial real estate business. Her father died suddenly when she was five years old and her family faced significant struggles afterward. Sheila developed a strong work ethic and had planned to retire from her part-time job at a local heavy equipment company at age 80 in 2021. Enter 2020 and Covid, which resulted in her being furloughed for four months. This allowed her and her husband to adjust to what retired life together would be like and after returning to work for a few more months, and 58 years of working, she retired in December 2021.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, lived there until I was in my early twenties with my mother and older brother. My father died of a heart attack when I was five and a half and life changed dramatically after that. I remember my father; I was a daddy's girl. I would sit on his lap and [we] made breakfast every Sunday. He owned several blocks in Manhattan, a used car lot and parking lots, and he did very well. We used to see his family every week, he had a lot of siblings. When he died his sister, Helen, who was unmarried, forged my mother's signature and said the property belonged to her. Another older brother who was a prominent attorney knew a judge and so they took the property [from my mother]. The sister, Helen, I still shudder when I say her name and the lawyer, they told my mother to put her children in an orphanage if she couldn’t take care of us. It was awful.
My mother went to work and my grandmother moved in. My mother got a job at a fulfillment place which was run by a woman, unusual for this time. She was empathetic to my mom and gave her the summers off so we could go to Rhode Island. She laid her off to collect unemployment. We spent summers in Rhode Island near Roger Williams Park with my grandmother and uncle who had no kids. Another brother helped out financially.
We were poor but of course I had some things: a bike, skates, shoes. My mother had a friend who knew a model at a shoe company so we always had shoes. I made special progress and skipped a year of high school. After two years in junior high, and if you had an IQ 135 or over, you met the requirement, which allowed you to skip a year in high school.
My childhood was good, my best friend lived across the way. Her family was from Austria and her father was a doctor. We were inseparable. My brother had a harder time as there were no men around.
We had good times. I went to a famous high school in Brooklyn called James Madison. Bernie Sanders was two years behind me. Also, Jane Brody*, a writer and the musician Carole King were in my class. Carole performed in school events called Sing Along with other students.
I wasn’t terribly interested in college and I hated studying. My brother who is two years older than me never studied, he didn’t need to. He is smarter [than me] but I wouldn’t say that in front of him! I ended up going to Brooklyn College for a two-year course, an associate's degree to be a medical assistant.
Career and Marriage
Soon I met a pharmacist and got married. We were married five years and then were divorced with no children. I worked as a secretary at a company owned by an uncle's friend called Pharmaceuticals Inc. Later they became JB Williams who sold bar soap that lathered well for shaving cream. I worked there 13 years and then left; I wanted to do more.
I worked for two years as office manager at a CPA firm. They handled business and show business people -- one task I had was fun but kind of lousy too. I had to straighten out, organize and do the backup work for audits. Some of their famous customers were The Temptations, Burt Bacharach, and Angie Dickinson. I wanted to go back to school to be a CPA but then got a call from an old boss, so I went back to my old company in a new role. Soon my assistant and my now husband's salesman set me and Charlie up. We went to their house for dinner. They had set up their bosses! I liked Charlie right away. That first night he made me laugh so hard the water came out my nose! He has never has stopped making me laugh. He is the best husband. We got married here in this house 39 years ago.
Working in a Male Dominated Field
I've worked for 58 years. In Connecticut I eventually found a career in the building material and equipment industry as a Marketing Manager. So, in all I worked 21 years in New York City (two with the CPA) and then 34 years in Connecticut. I was responsible for marketing the company, capabilities, the people, products, our manufacturing vendors, customer satisfaction both prior to and after the internet. The industry I was in was mostly about [building] materials handling equipment and storage systems. Over time (34 years) it became about automated materials handling, automated storage systems and robotics. The building material company was bought and sold three times in 33 years. In 2008 I started working 20 hours a week.
Going back 58 years and being a working woman, it was difficult. I was often the only woman. In New York, my boss was the vice -president of Sales. At the sales meetings I would be the only woman there. I would always ask if the other women that worked for me could come too and finally, he let it happen. I had to go out with the men for dinner and as soon as dinner was over, I would leave.
Connecticut was male oriented as well. Management always sent me to seminars and one in Lake Tahoe about new concepts where spouses were invited. Charlie came with me and I was the only woman in the whole room. This was around 1989. I remember the people that ran the seminar called on me in front of everyone. I was not surprised at that. I went in with confidence and if they had a problem it was short lived [because I knew what I was talking about]. That was my advice at another meeting in Arizona a few years later to a female service manager who attended. There were actually two of us now! We met in the ladies’ room and she asked me all kinds of questions. "Was I accepted? How is this for you?" Later I was so happy when they hired a female service technician.
I always embraced change including today, tomorrows and the future. To stay up to date in the industry I would read about what was going on in this country and other countries through research online and online publications so that I could pass on relevant information and suggestions to management. Men are "broad strokers" and I am a detailed person. I would [take their vision] and flesh it out. That is where I added value and I always wanted to be part of the team.
Furlough and Retirement
I am used to change. Every time the company sold you had to sell yourself and prove yourself. At Nitco I did special projects for the President and other tasks. When COVID hit we were considered an essential business and so were able to stay open but we all had to go work from home. I hated it! At the office I had three monitors and as used to change as I was, I was used to doing things a certain way. Then I was furloughed for four months. Finally, in August I was called back from furlough and we had to choose home or office- I chose OFFICE!
Not working for four months was a "getting used to" time. Charlie had retired some years ago and he ran everything at the house while I worked. Now we were both home and had to share the duties so it was a trial time. The four months off made a big difference in getting used to retirement. When I went back to work, I wasn't that happy anymore. I would just as soon be home.
[In early Nov 2020] I emailed the President, Vice-President and Human Resource person and my bosses and announced my retirement effective Dec 4.
Without the furlough, it might have been a hard decision. I had wanted to work until 80. Working was all I knew. Charlie had traveled a lot for his job, he was gone Monday through Friday and I was used to being alone.
After the announcement I came home and realized I am excited to retire and looking forward to it.
[To face challenges in life] I've learned that it is not productive to dwell on negative things or things that you don’t have any more and don’t be afraid.
In person interview conducted by Allison Rose and recorded with permission from Sheila Drao on Nov 24, 2020. Story edited for length and flow.
*Jane Ellen Brody (born May 19, 1941) is an American author on science and nutrition topics, who has written a number of books and reports for The New York Times as its "Personal Health" columnist.
“I told Gordon [my Doctor friend] about Pete and asked if there was anything that could be done [for the AIDS]. I would have done anything to help him. Gordon said there was nothing to do-- just pray.”
Ted discusses the challenges he faced early in life after his parents’ divorce in the 1950s, and the positive emotional leap he made when he married Janet. “Love at first sight,” he claims! In the 1980s he faced down the challenges of having a gay brother, Peter, die of AIDS, part of the first wave of men to face this disease and the stigma associated with it. Later he cared solely for his wife as her health deteriorated from a lifetime of smoking. Widowed in 2015, he has a new “wonderful lady” in his life and is thriving.
Childhood in New Jersey and Parents’ Divorce
I grew up in New Jersey surrounded by a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins. My mother was the youngest of six and as adults several siblings lived on the same street.
My father was a writer and a museum curator for the Home Fire Insurance Company in New York City. My mother a housewife. She was the second of his three wives. He had two children with his first wife and then my brothers and I.
My parents divorced when I was at a young age and this had a big impact on me and my brothers.
I was bright but hated school and was immature. I joined the Air Force and my career in the military was not very starred. I had trouble and received a general discharge. I was stupid, immature, maladjusted, and difficult with authority, didn't seem to care about anything. I have never discussed this with anyone in the family. Looking back, I am ashamed and would do things differently if I could.
After the discharge I floated along taking insignificant jobs. At one job I was attending training and at the very first class fell in love with the teacher! I went home and told my mother “today I met the woman I am going to marry” and I did! Mom and I were both knocked for a loop.
Younger Brother Contracts AIDs in the 80’s
Peter was the second oldest – well we all knew he was a little different and in the late 1950’s we surmised he was gay. It was unusual, back then people were not accepting of gay people. My family understood and did accept it. He was a wonderful uncle to my kids and I still miss him. He died of AIDS in 1986; he went in hospital and never got out.
I don’t remember when I found out Pete had AIDS. I do remember making an appointment with our neighbor Gordon who was a Doctor to talk to him about it. I wanted to pay him for his time but when he knew it was me, he told his staff not to bill me for the visit. I told him about Pete and asked if there was anything that could be done. I would have done anything to help him. Gordon said there was nothing to do--just pray.
After some time, Pete became very ill. Janet and I flew down to see him; he was unresponsive in the hospital and on a ventilator. It made his body move oddly. A few weeks later I was at work and the Doctor called and said he thought Pete might be waking up. But he called back 10 minutes later and [Pete] was dead.
Before Pete was sick, but after the start of the AIDS epidemic, our family went to a party at his house in Virginia. There were gay and straight people there, mostly healthy, but some were sick. A year or two later all the gay men who were at the party were dead. They all tried to care for each other. When Pete died, he was cremated and we buried him at Yellow Frame Church in Blairstown, New Jersey, near the family farm with his Father.
I married Janet June 16, 1962 and it was the happiest day of my life with my best friend Bob and my family by my side. Janet and I celebrated 50 years of marriage in 2012.
Once I met Janet I had to mature and take responsibility for my life so I would not disappoint her. I realized that I made mistakes when I was younger, immature, and pigheaded. Janet was the main reason I became more responsible. We have three beautiful daughters. Once married, I was concerned with my wife and daughters.
I started my career in the distribution field as a traffic manager at Plumose Inc. and moved around to several well-known companies, Pathmark and Value House. I moved the family to Maine and finally to Massachusetts. I bought and ran my own company that delivered appliances for Sears for several years and eventually retired from Weetabix. Janet worked many years in Human Resources. I always had more fun at home than at work being with my family.
I lost Janet on June 9, 2015 due to complications from smoking.
I started smoking when I was 15 or 16. I used to sneak off and smoke away from parents. They didn’t want me to smoke yet both of them did. Dad was a heavy smoker and Mom was unusual; she would smoke a pack at a party and then not smoke all week. Most of my friends didn't smoke.
Smoking, I determined, was not good for me and I began to feel that I wouldn’t survive a heavy smoking career. It took me three tries to quit, the first time lasted 9 months, the second time 6 months. Then when I was 39, I quit for good. I took a half pack of Pall Mall and threw it out the window. I have been off cigarettes for 42 years.
Janet couldn’t quit--we talked about it a lot. She tried a few times. She would practice blowing into a device that measured breathing power so the Doctor wouldn't tell her she had to quit. There wasn't anything I could do about it. Once I hid the car so she couldn't get to the store to get cigarettes but the neighbor gave them to her.
Janet cooked, cleaned, did laundry and managed the finances. As her health deteriorated, she mostly sat and was on oxygen. We called the oxygen tank her baby since she had to bring it everywhere. I would take her the clubhouse to play games, bridge, and parties so she stayed social. Eventually I had to take over the household tasks. Everyone seemed to notice that she was getting worse but I convinced myself that it was going to remain like this, nothing would change. Of course, deep down I knew it was going to end. I am proud that I was able to take care of her and never sent her to a home or hospice.
After Janet died it was very lonely going back to Florida for the winter. She was always the social one but I realized that I was not the loner that I had thought I was.
The next winter I ran into Lorena in the parking lot of our condo complex and asked her out. I hope she doesn't regret it! We hit it off and became very good companions, friends, and lovers. I brought her home to meet the family. She was nervous and I told her they will like you better than me! So now I have my books, television and a new wonderful lady from Florida.
Being a Grandparent
As a parent I have been accused of being too tough on my kids but that is OK; I was not their friend. But with the grandchildren, I am their friend. I let them get away with stuff that I would not have let my kids get away with.
I have wonderful children and it shows because their kids are wonderful, and because my wife, Janet, was wonderful.
In my view, success as parent is not how my children turned out, but how THEIR children have turned out. And they have been successful with that.
In person interview conducted by Allison Rose, recorded with permission from Ted Dunshee, September 20, 2020. Story edited for length and flow.
“I learned to put myself in line for something that I thought I might have the ability to do and then I took the risk and then I filled myself out.”
Childhood in Maine, Loving and Losing a Job, Adapting and Adjusting
A Mainer by birth and in spirit, Dave Fearon grew up in Portland, Maine in the 1940s in a classic New England neighborhood packed with family, friends, and loads of free play. His father worked in the shipyard during the war and his mother worked as a homemaker. From an early age he was always the one that “came up with things to do,” a skill that he used to build a remarkable and eclectic career in community engagement work at universities all over New England and as a Professor in the Business School at Central Connecticut State University, where he was recognized for his exceptional teaching. But Dave’s success did not always follow a straight line—he handled devastating job losses, the periodic strain of supporting a family on one salary and more and had to constantly adapt to survive and thrive.
Growing Up in Maine in the 1940s
I still, to this moment, use my Maineness even though I’ve lived away from Maine for 40 years. My start in Maine set me in the ideal location for what I’ve become. My grandparents lived in one apartment and we lived in the other. Everyone was in and out all of the time. That nesting was all about those apartments with many of the fathers at war.
My father was 4F, he was deaf in one ear, so he worked in the shipyard making Liberty ships. My mother was a homemaker, resuming her career as dental hygienist many years later to support college tuition. I was the second child, my brother was older and my sister came along about 7 years later.
All that freedom to play, we had to use our imagination. Nothing was furnished to us. Go out and play and come in at lunch or supper. I was the one who came up with things to do.
So Maine as a start was the right place for me all the way to high school and even through college. I went to a classic high school. They taught us Latin; I had magnificent English teachers, which really helped me a lot.
I had an entrepreneurial style of thinking starting from when I was a kid. And I was naturally easy with kids. I started helping out my Junior High Principal at the YMCA--I was 12 or 13—and the kids were learning to swim. He’d sit on the wall at the pool, smoke a pipe, and tell me “Just take it Dave.” So I taught swimming, was a day camp storyteller and it allowed me to continue to play and to lead and I got into a teaching mode early in life.
High School and College
[Portland] had two big high schools. One would track you either in a college program or vocational. I can’t do a damn thing with my hands but I was mentally acute so I was naturally in the college track. I admire kids who are the first in their family to go to college. I was very fortunate that my dad was a graduate of Syracuse [University] and his grandfather went there; my mother was a dental hygienist and went to the baccalaureate level, which was unusual.
I had a desire to go to Springfield College to develop as a YMCA guy. I saw all the great things we were doing for kids and believed in it and I got a scholarship to go. But I had fallen in love with Connie, my always wife, way back in 5th grade, but she didn’t know it until well into high school. I really missed her. Springfield to Orono is far. I shocked my parents, with my scholarship and everything, and told them I’m going to go to Colby [College] which was a big expensive move.
But Connie was at [University of Maine] Orono—about an hour’s drive [from Colby]--and I was back close to my family. I am not exaggerating when I say that I worked at the YMCA about 100 hours a week that summer--cleaned floors, ran a night desk, taught swimming. I graduated in June 1965 and got married a week later!
Loving and Losing an Ideal Job in Maine
Editor’s Note: By the time Dave Fearon enrolled in a PhD. program at the University of Connecticut to study Educational Leadership and Organizational Behavior, a new cross discipline field, he had two young children and a wife to support. He worked with Peter Vaill (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Vaill), one of the founders of the field of organizational behavior, who celebrated the cross disciplinary approach that Dave had taken in school as a sociology major and in his work as a community engagement leader in various jobs in Maine. When he graduated in 1974, he was poised to apply for positions in Tier-One research universities, such as the University of Connecticut, but family needs shifted his attention to Maine and, putting personal obligations ahead of professional gains, he headed to a new job at the University of Maine in Farmington, which had about 1000 students and, well, as Dave says, “was WAY up there.”
Everyone told me, “There goes your career,” but I was a Mainer and wanted my kids to grow up with small town values and to live near my mother and family, so I took it. If I had taken that job [professor for the University of Connecticut] I would have made decent money and gotten a Tier One retirement. Coulda, woulda! But why would I be interesting enough to talk to now!? [laughs]
Instead, I did the Maine thing; you get what you get and make the most of it. From 1974 to 1983 I created just about everything—worked on an energy conservation community project, health education, and secured a $980,000 grant with Kellogg back in 1976, which was serious money, and created a statewide program for seven campuses that was a big deal. I did not feel I was wasting my doctorate. I was recognized nationally for my rural Maine work.
[Then] the acting President [of the university] asked me to come to a conference room, all the deans there, and he said, “You’re done.” A reorganizing. He said he’d fund me for two years to teach at the Southern Maine campus [in Portland] which was 100 miles away. Really it was the Chancellor [of the Maine] system at the time who disliked our president and was jealous of the visibility and the grant. He decided to “reorganize.”
I am about 40 years old and in a town of 4000 people—president of Ski Club, kids in schools. Everyone was asking me what did you do? Why did you lose your job?
I had to commute 105 miles to Portland for two years. And it was soft money at Portland—so it ran out. I’d still be there but it ran out.
Regaining His Footing
Editor’s Note: After a year as a visiting professor at Colby College, Dave heard about a job in Organizational Management in the business school at the University of Hartford while attending a meeting for the National Board for Public Administration. That networking habit came in handy again and again as Dave tried to regain some stability in his career after the devastating and unexpected shift at his job in Farmington, ME.
I didn’t want to leave Maine. My son was about to start Colby and we would have gotten the tuition free as a benefit. That was really a low time. I can still hear the screams of my soon-to-be-junior in high school daughter. “Just leave me here!!”
They came. They adapted.
It was a tough time.
But I coped. Maybe it goes back to the fact I am an ancestor of a guy named Elder Brewster who came over on the Mayflower and established the Congregational Church. I had this belief in faith. I never got rocked off my pins. And, the other part was, I was curious. Okay, so this is the end of the plan. If I jump it, we’ll see how the water is…
But I was so torn torn torn about leaving Maine.
[After a year at the University of Hartford] I could tell it was not a good fit for me. But I am always in organizations and I was at a national professional meeting and these two guys, whom I’ve become close with ever since, told me that one of our group members told me a professional colleague at CCSU [Central Connecticut State University] said they had a position. I called and they said if you can get your resume in by 4 o’clock on Friday we’ll consider you.
I didn’t even tell [my wife] Connie.
I didn’t know where the campus was and there was no GPS then. I had to drop the letter off. I pulled into a gas station for directions. I couldn’t find a place to park. I didn’t know where the school of business was, which wasn’t even a building then, just an office in Maria Sanford Hall.
It was like a bad movie. I am running down the hall before they close!
Building a New Life at CCSU
Editor’s Note: Dave worked as a professor in the School of Business at CCSU for 30 years. He says he “fell in love with the students. I liked their stories, their diversity, that work ethic. No silver spoon in any mouth here!” He served as chair of his department before even securing tenure, published a book on managing learning in organizations, worked with Hospital for Special Care as an internal consultant with management and leadership, earned accolades for his experiential teaching and learning programs and more. He spoke most fully about his work building and managing the Travelers’ Edge program, which works to create a funnel from CCSU to jobs at the insurance company.
An executive from Travelers came to us and said that they were not hiring enough kids from Central so I decided to tackle that problem. I secured an EDGE grant and ran that program, with a colleague, for nine years. Kids in that program, most the first in their family [to go to college], and students from all kinds of ethnicities [moved] through [EDGE] and it made a really big impact on the hiring at Travelers from CCSU. Half the plaques and mementos on my shelf came from that [program].
The School [of Business] was going through an accreditation, which has a very rigid framework, and they were like, “so what have you been doing here for the last 20 years?” I told them I’ve been teaching and innovating, but they couldn’t squeeze me into one of their categories. Not enough publications. It was very demoralizing. So that’s when I said I’m done. I couldn’t be me anymore.
But then my dear friend, Peter Vaill, reached out about an unfinished manuscript he was working on. He was very sick, paralyzed from the waist down. He was in Minnesota—so we did it remotely—but at one point he could not sit and revise anymore. So I am finishing that manuscript, Notes on Practice. We also started some podcasting, Practice? Podcast, which I had to learn but now I am on episode 79! It’s about honoring people for how they have crafted themselves as practitioners. What is the story they are becoming?
You know, if I had stayed at UCONN, I would have found a way to conform [and been a traditional academic scholar] but I learned to put myself in line for something that I thought I might have the ability to do and then I took the risk and then I filled myself out.
Interview conducted by Professor Mary Collins on February 12, 2021. The content has been edited for clarity and length.
“Lee, Dick’s longtime friend and live-in companion, entered a nursing home just weeks prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.”
Building Social Net Without Children or Spouse
Dick Filbert was born in Waterbury, CT to Canadian parents. His father worked as a plant manager at Princeton Knitting Mills in Waterbury, where Dick eventually worked in many positions, including product inspector. The mills, sold to Burlington Industries in 1962, produced the first high nap fabric that was used as imitation fur, and also made knitted fabrics and rugs. He never married or had children so he depends on a very small circle of social support. Lee, his longtime friend and companion, was moved to an assisted living facility just as Covid-19 hit, so Dick had to face the harsh reality of not being able to see a loved one during the pandemic. Dick’s two brothers have been out of touch with him for years. His sister, Marguerite, lives in Florida. She remains committed to Dick, helps with his financial affairs and orders weekly grocery deliveries. Until recently, when deemed no longer necessary, Medicare provided nursing and home health aides for Dick. One aide continues to visit on occasion and will take him out to the bank or pharmacy. He is relatively independent, cooking for himself and performing activities of daily living.
Family History of Cancer and a Stroke
My father became gravely ill with lung cancer. I was living in New York and I had called my mother and said, “Do you want me to come home?” And she said, “Yes.” So I quit my job as a messenger/mail deliverer at New York University Dental College, left my apartment and I came back to Waterbury. I [got a job] working in Princeton Knitting Mills. [My two brothers] couldn’t face what was happening to my father because he was losing [weight]. I think he weighed 75 pounds when he died. They couldn’t see him [like that]. So they didn’t help my mother at all with my father’s care. And I was there when he died. I don’t know what was wrong with them, you know. Especially my older brother, [who died of lung cancer in 2012]. I mean you would think that my father having died from cigarettes and drink that [my brother] would take the other [path]. In those days, people didn’t know how bad [smoking was]. It’s not like now they have messages everywhere. I have never smoked a day in my life.
Well I went to [Florida] to see [my mother] for her 90th birthday. I spent a month there and that was in 2006. I was 66 years old. And I had a stroke. I was in the hospital for a day and a half. And all I lost was my left peripheral vision. I was thankful because with strokes, you know, things could be worse.
On His Long-term Companionship with Lee
[I met Lee] in 1960 when I was in this drama group and we needed costumes one time and Lee had a costume shop. I was 30 and he was 39. So we have been friends for 60 years. Well, [about 13 years back] after my stroke, he took it upon himself to move in to take care of me, which I thought was great. And he tells me things that I don’t even remember. I must have been out of it at that time. And so that’s why I feel like I kind of owe him in a way. At one time I was in the seminary because I thought I wanted to become a priest. And Lee also considered the priesthood at one time. He later married and had three children. As Catholics, when he and his wife separated, they followed church law and did not divorce. I never really wanted to get married, although there was one girl that I was very interested in and she was killed in an accident. It stuck with me forever.
Lee and I have so many things in common, like movies and things. We used to drive up to the Mohawk Trail, and other places, and we enjoyed more or less the same things. And when I got lung cancer and I had my 18 bouts of radiation he would drive me there. And then, his son was the one that put him in the hospital because he fell three times [on] Thanksgiving Day. So he went to the hospital and he had a couple of strokes. Then he went to St. Joe’s [assisted living] in Trumbull, CT]. I haven’t seen him since February. And the plan was that I was gonna go there, which I’m hoping for, but I don’t know if its gonna happen.
On Pandemic Challenges
The biggest challenge has been getting whatever I need. Marguerite is very good about calling in all these [grocery] deliveries. Yeah, it makes it easier for me to cope without Lee being here. Lee will call me whenever he can ever since the pandemic started.
[If the pandemic ended tomorrow] I’d like to get admitted to St. Joe’s with Lee. My sister wants me to go there. Lee said he’s gonna come back here, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. If he starts falling…he’s over 200 pounds, and I’m not big.
I heard that they have a place for me at St. Joes, because they have lost 43 people to the Corona virus and other things. My sister is working on having me moved there, but I don’t know how long that will take. She wants me to move to Florida to live with her, but I don’t feel like I should put that pressure on her. And I would rather be with Lee.
Interview conducted by Claire Hibbs-Cusson, recorded with permission from Dick Filbert, August 1, 2020. Story edited for length and flow.
I was still in high school when [Dr.] Martin Luther King came to North Hartford. My father took me to see a huge parade where he was marching with Reverend Battles, another famous minister. And I also met Mohammed Ali when he came to Weaver High School, and he was gorgeous. Just a beautiful, beautiful individual with perfect skin [a boxer] with no marks at all.
Paulette Fox, born and raised in Hartford, CT, is the first African American woman to serve as executive director of the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of New Britain, one of the city’s oldest providers of job training and career development services. In her interview, she shares her personal success story as an influential educator and nonprofit leader.
Building a Career
I was born in Hartford in 1950. I grew up in public housing designed to be integrated with both white and black families. My father was from the south and my mother was from the north. In that day we would probably have been called a “middle class” family, although in my young mind, we were “a family.” We had everything we needed. My mom and dad wished for all four of us to graduate high school and go on to college. They got their wish.
In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, I graduated from Weaver High School, the same high school that my mother and all of my siblings graduated from. We would watch [on TV] all of the marching and [Dr.] Martin Luther King, and I still get the chills. My father would have discussions [with us] about what was happening. And he would share with us about when he was seven years old in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he actually witnessed a lynching. His mother helped him to deal with that by discussing racism, and discrimination.
As an African American high school student in the mid to late 60s, I experienced high levels of racial tension and discrimination. My school was 60 percent Jewish and Italian, 40 percent Black.
I was still in high school when [Dr.] Martin Luther King came to North Hartford. My father took me to see a huge parade where he was marching with Reverend Battles, another famous minister. And I also met Mohammed Ali when he came to Weaver High School, and he was gorgeous. Just a beautiful, beautiful individual with perfect skin [a boxer] with no marks at all.
When I graduated in 1968, [during] the worst turmoil in the history of the country, everything was going on; hippies, yippies, and you know, flower kids. I went off to Eastern Connecticut State University, formerly Willimantic Teachers College, there was a group of seventy-five African American college students from Bridgeport, New Haven, New London, and Hartford. We all came together, and we had an eight-week summer program that kind of prepared us for being successful in college. We earned three credits, and thank God, for me it truly saved my life. During my freshman year I became politically involved. I joined the Black Panther Party in New Haven as an instructor in their free breakfast and education program for kids. We would drive from Willimantic to New Haven every Saturday, and I would have my little beret on and be teaching the kids, and just learning about African American History. Because, of course, we were not exposed to that really in high school. But just reading Richard Wright and all of the great books I really got engaged.
I dropped out of college in 1972 and my father was devastated. He came down to pick me up. He was wondering why I was involved in this. I had an afro and he was wondering why my hair should be like that, why [I was] leaving school. And I’m talking about that it’s the movement and the revolution is gonna come. He was a correctional officer at the Cheshire Reformatory. So I was calling him “Uncle Tom,” and saying “you’re working in the system”’ and all those crazy things. But anyway, in the 70s I did go back to school and finish college. And that was important. And then I started working as a substitute teacher around Hartford to find out who I really wanted to be.
By the time I was 28 I had married and divorced. My mother was a paraprofessional at Project Concern, the first bussing program that took place in Connecticut. They bussed some of the black kids from Hartford into West Hartford, Avon, Simsbury, and Glastonbury. I had an opportunity to be a resource teacher and guidance counselor at Glastonbury High School, the only African American [faculty member]. I did that for four years, and Mr. Bartolato was a wonderful principal I will never forget. He allowed me to be me and do what I needed to do to bring the two communities together. I started a human relations club with about seventy-five Glastonbury and Project Concern students. We would meet twice a week after school in the auditorium. We would get to know each other from a people’s perspective. Then I noticed that a couple of other guidance counselors and teachers started asking, “Why are you doing Black history? Why are you doing all those things?” So that kind of toughened me up to realize that all these people in this all white, upper suburban school really don’t get it. So, when Mr. Bartolato retired, I left.
After that I was the Executive Director for Mount Olive daycare programs, with 450 kids and 150 staff members, five daycare houses, a lot of work and a lot of stuff was going on with daycare at that time. But I loved those little people, those little faces. I got married again and then saw an opportunity in New Britain as an Executive Director of an employment and training center. I didn’t know anything about employment training. But I applied and they hired me in 1985 and my whole life began to change. I was blessed to have had some great mentors; Alton Brooks, who was the first African American to serve as the director of the human opportunities and rights department in New Britain; Emma Pierce, who was a civil rights advocate in New Britain in the factories; and Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan, unsung hero for Civil Rights and the first African American to serve on the General Motors board of directors. Reverend Leon was responsible for working with [Nelson] Mandela as General Motors was the first company to actually move to South Africa. The reverend’s passion was to change the lives of people. And when I began to get involved in employment and training I realized that we were changing the lives of people. Before I came to OIC, the first group of people trained by OIC in New Britain was the Polish community. They came out for free training along with some African Americans and the Latino community. Northeast Utilities was our first corporate sponsor and in 1972 they hired all of our graduates, the first graduates from OIC New Britain. With my passion for youth and my background in educating the young, it was decided that my best fit would be to specialize in youth, ages 11 to 24 and their parents.
On Living Through a Global Pandemic
Last year was probably the worst year of my life as a nonprofit Executive Director, as a mom, as a grandmother and a great-grandmother, dealing with people’s reactions [to the pandemic]. And I have to say this, that President Trump did not help matters at all. Oh, I experienced a certain level of fear whether or not we could survive this. But fortunately, I have some great seniors in my life, mentors, and I spoke to one of my friends, Gerri Brown-Springer, the former principal of Slade Middle School. Her mother is 100 years old. And last year, at ninety-nine, she said, “This too shall pass.” She does not know that she gave me the strength to say, “If she can do it I can do it.”
So, on March 13 , I remember, the school district closed out. OIC had not officially closed because we run some before-and-after-school programs. And I was like, “Okay, Paulette, what are you gonna do?” I’ve got staff that are depending on their paychecks. I’ve got board members looking at me. I’ve got funders that haven’t quite contacted me yet. On April 1, I officially closed the agency with board approval and began to contact funders and met with all the staff. We are blessed to be in a large, old Catholic Middle School. I called my friend, Bill Tomasso, and said, “You have to help me with the CDC guidelines, ordering, disinfecting—that was not my area of expertise.” And he sent help.
We did know how to use Facebook and Instagram. I called on friends who had the resources to help us with communication. We contacted the funders to let them know how we wanted to use financial surpluses—to have the staff learn to operate virtually. But then I had to deal with my staff and their fears. “What’s going to happen?” I said, “I don’t know. This is new to me too!” My stress level was up, and I reached out to mental health and talked with them about what we could do. We went virtual with some phenomenal self-help. Connecticut After School Association went virtual with “here’s what you can do” and tapped into all the resources. It looked to me like the State of Connecticut came together. The State Department of Education, Dr. Quinonas, allowed us to get creative with my after-school state grant. American Savings Foundation said to buy cleaning stuff and get custodians. The community foundation released special grants up to $5,000.00, so that [you] can be innovative and do what you need to do. United Way…everybody, I say I will never forget the collaborative efforts of everybody coming together asking what can we do. And this was virtual.
Challenges Getting Back to Normal
We’ve got a serious problem in re-engaging our youth with school and into some sense of normalcy. And not just with the pandemic. Now we have to deal with social inequity. Right now the George Floyd trial, having impacted every ethnic background, every race, has become global. And if it doesn’t play out [in a positive way], my fear is that it will cause the worst race riots we have ever seen.
The school district sent out a questionnaire about our strengths, our weaknesses, our challenges, and our hopes. One of my challenges now is the mental health of my youth, parents, and my staff. What can I do to prepare my staff for their own wellness? And how they are going to deal with the youth? How do we really be empathetic? I’m encouraging my staff to take a self-help day. We’ve got a serious problem in re-engaging our youth with school and into some sense of normalcy. And not just with the pandemic. Now we have to deal with social inequity. Right now the George Floyd trial, having impacted every ethnic background, every race, has become global. And if it doesn’t play out [in a positive way], my fear is that it will cause the worst race riots we have ever seen. And I know I’m not the only one that feels this way.
I’m in training now, through the school district, for courageous conversations on race. And we have established part of the school district’s five-year plan on how to look at equity and how we move forward in this school, in this town. And it’s interesting because it has me looking at myself, evaluating my own beliefs, and stereotypes and prejudices and all those things. And how do we have those conversations about race? And how do we help our kids have these conversations? So on one hand, it’s a lot of excitement. On another hand, I’m afraid and I’m hoping in my lifetime that we can get it right.
Telephone Interview conducted by Claire Hibbs-Cusson, recorded with permission from Paulette Fox, April 9, 2021. Story edited for length and flow.
“I did not know what love was until I married Tony [at age 56].”
Evelyn Fiorentino shared a tale of tremendous emotional resilience in the face of mounting personal losses and a difficult first marriage. Her mother died when she was two, her father when she was 13. She married at age 18 to a man whom she describes as a serial womanizer. Emotionally unmoored by the loss of both of her parents, Evelyn struggled to anchor herself but did find work as a telephone operator and, later at Sears. In her late 50s, after divorcing her first husband, she met the love of her life, Tony Fiorentino, and says she finally understood what love truly is. Now widowed and living in a life care apartment for seniors, she continues to struggle with isolation and is legally blind. She shared her story of emotional fortitude with the Story Exchange.
GROWING UP ON LONG ISLAND WITHOUT HER MOTHER
I was raised in Long Island and lived there for 13 years. My mother died when I was 2 years old; my dad died when I was 13. She had ovarian cancer. He had pancreatic cancer.
I think she was 42 when she died so she had me when she was 40. In those days no one had a baby at 40. I think I was a shock to them [laughs]. I had a brother 20 years older than me but he lived in Davenport, Iowa. I do have a picture of my brother holding me but I did not come to know him well.
My father remarried and I had a stepmother. She was good to me. But when she was around her own daughter and granddaughter, I was kinda the outsider, but when we were alone, she was good to me.
Somehow, I knew she really wasn’t my mother but I didn’t know it. One day we were sitting and talking and I asked her and said, “Are you my real mother?” and she told me no she was my stepmother. I started to scream and cry. My dad came into the room and he asked why I was crying. I shouted, “She’s not my mother! She’s not my mother!”
He turned to my stepmother and said, “I told you not to tell her until she can handle it. She can’t handle it now.”
I was about 7 to 8 years old. That’s a challenge.
I was as close as you can get to your dad, but, you know, he worked and he did gardening. He would take me on his lap and read comics to me. He built me a swing and he took me shopping when he did grocery shopping and he’d always take me.
My dad worked for Northrop Grumman [aircraft company] but I don’t know what his job was there. When I was growing up, children were supposed to be seen, not heard.
[When my father died when I was 13] that was kind of a turning point in my life that I never really recovered from. We kept the house for a year then she (stepmother) sold it and moved to upstate New York to Patterson near her daughter who was married and had a child.
I did not go to college. There was no money for that.
But I got a job at the New York Telephone Co. You know when they used to have the board in front of you and the light would light up and the woman would connect you, that’s what I did for a few years. They were very nice. It was like a little substation.
But my life was never the same after my dad died. I was kind of on my own. I guess I was alone most of my life. There were people in it but no one to really guide me. I had to just decide things—and I was just a kid—on my own.
MARRIED BY 18
I got married at age 18. Losing my dad made me feel unworthy of anybody. And I met this young man, who was very nice to me, but he was a womanizer. I married him. I had two children—son and daughter—I finally divorced him because I lost all respect for him.
I stayed with him because I did not have a family and I wanted my children to have a dad. He did love his children and he was a good provider but he was also a cheater.
[To cope with the strain] I worked part-time, used to garden, enjoyed reading, and had friends. I got by that way. I had my two kids. My son was in Little League and he enjoyed fishing and my daughter was on the Patterson Rangerettes, a baton group, and I was president of that for three years. I was very much a mom.
I stayed in it.
I finally left when the kids were grown. My son had gotten married and my daughter was working and going to school. Finally, I decided that was it. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I left. I was about 56.
FINDING LOVE LATE IN LIFE
At the job I worked at, I met a man who was divorcing his wife and we fell in love and got married.
I did not know what love was until I married Tony. He was Italian. His feelings went very deep. He said he had never felt about anyone like he did for me. We did trips together, gardened together, just did everything together. I was in my early 70s when he died.
I’ve been through so much [sustained silence].
We had lived in Roanoke, Virginia. We had a beautiful little home there. We had nothing at first but we went to Virginia, because, well, when I was divorcing my [first] husband, he got nasty. So I knew I had to leave and Tony was quite willing to leave. We both worked at Sears. We lived there for 18 years. We were happy and the people in Roanoke were very nice to us.
MOVE TO LIVE WITH DAUGHTER FAILS
[When he died], my daughter came and I went back with them to their house in Connecticut. I moved in with them. I did not have any legal papers, but I paid $300,000 to build an apartment onto their house and when she was with her first husband, it was fine. But then she got divorced and she got this second husband who is a nasty man. I had to leave my own apartment. I got a good lawyer when they tried to evict me and won, but they were so mean, I left on my own anyway. I no longer talk to my daughter.
LIFE CARE AND LEGALLY BLIND
Now I am at Nunnawauk Meadows [in Newtown, CT], for senior citizens. It’s got private apartments--a life care place—and I live independently.
But it’s too isolating and the apartment itself is not well lit. I’m very alone here. They have everything shut down because of the virus. Nothing here going on at all now.
It’s been just a year since I left my daughter.
I have macular degeneration [causes loss in the center of the field of vision]. My brother had it. I have had it. And my son was just diagnosed with it. I am legally blind.
I had perfect vision when I was younger. But when I was 59 I went for a regular eye exam. The doctor in Virginia examined me and said, “Do you know you have macular degeneration?”
If I want to go someplace, I have someone to pick me up.
I can get around my apartment.
But if I go out, I must use a cane.
I have a lady who comes in for a few hours every day and gets things going. But I’m not eating group meals; I am by myself.
Connecticut for the Blind can give you magnifiers and a talking watch but that’s all they can do.
I am truly isolated.
WHERE DOES HER STRENGTH COME FROM?
I don’t know. Must have evolved as I had to face things at a young age. I survived. It’s in me somewhere.
I have friends in Virginia and here in Connecticut but I can’t get out and meet people [because of Covid-19].
I have a cat here. Flowers.
We thought he was a she and I named him Flowers. A Siamese. 11 years old.
My husband’s name, my last name, is Fiorentino. In Italian Fiorentino means tiny flower.
[So Tony is still with her somehow…]
Interview via phone on August 13, 2020. Story edited for length and flow by Professor Mary Collins.
“It’s one of those stories that has me passionate about teaching people about business. If I can stop even one young person from doing the things I did wrong it would be a gift, and I'm pretty sure I’ve done that.”
From football to ballet in the South; a career in entrepreneurship; family challenge of wife with Postpartum Psychosis;
Drew Harris grew up in Montgomery, Alabama in the early 1960s and remembers that several people were killed when the Freedom Riders came to town during the Civil Rights Movement. As a boy he became immersed in the south’s football culture. Despite being quite good at it, by his mid-teens he shifted to ballet, a decision nearly unheard of at the time, and it created a lot of social stress for him as a young man. He attended college in his teens and wound up trying his hand at dozens of jobs, from work as a longshoreman to computer programming and sales. Eventually he tapped into his many skills and pursued an MBA and PhD and developed a career as an entrepreneur and college professor, including the last 17 years at CCSU. In the section on his personal life, he reflects on the huge challenges his family faced as his wife struggled with postpartum psychosis.
Childhood: Freedom Riders Come to Montgomery, AL
The first 9 years of my life I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, about a block from the Montgomery bus station. That bus station became infamous because of the Freedom Riders that arrived there, the ensuing riots and a couple of people who were killed.
My dad was a radio disc jockey, and I had an uncle who was living with us who was a junior reporter for the local newspaper. So, they were down at the bus station during the riots, reporting from there. Recently, I found some things my father wrote about that time that he was not able to put on the air or put into print because our family would be in danger because it was sympathetic to the Freedom Riders.
It was dangerous, so my mom and dad had told us, “Don't go out in the front” because it would be trouble, and of course as soon as they left the house it's exactly what we did. We weren't gonna miss it. Then I guess the next day they shipped us out to a farm outside of town that some friends had. We were just there for the first day of the riots, but I think it was three days or more that it went on.
From Football to Ballet
I started playing football (in the fourth grade) and was very good at that. I wound up having college scouts come see our county championship game in the ninth grade. At that time, ninth graders didn't play football with the high school kids, but we had an amazing class, and three of the guys ended up playing at SEC schools. If I had kept playing I probably would've too. I know I don't look like a football player in the modern era! It's [football] more important than religion down there.
But in high school, coaches were making a living out of coaching, and the whole tenor of the game changed. Tyrants. They were not concerned about my welfare, and it became fairly clear to me that I did not want to be a part of that. So, in the spring of my ninth grade during spring practice I quit, and that was a traumatizing event. Literally overnight even my closest friends wouldn't speak to me at school. I could walk through the halls, and nobody would meet my eye. There were times where I felt threatened. It was always a nervous thing to go to the bathroom because that's always where fights would happen. I remember one particular instance where these two guys from the football team came in and they were older than me, juniors or seniors. They wanted to “talk” to me, and I was like “okay I’m going to have to fight my way out of here.” We did not fight, but instead, talked through what was going on.
Editor’s Note: Harris took another bold step when he decided to not only quit football but take up ballet while he was still in High School in Alabama.
When I was 15 my cousin wanted to go take ballet. It was about an hour drive from where we lived and she wanted somebody to go with her. I went and started taking ballet. It was interesting because my cousin quit, but by the time that happened I got kind of hooked on it. She had quit and I couldn’t drive, so I often hitchhiked over to ballet class.
I had an opportunity to sneak into college early so I stopped going to high school after my tenth-grade year, and I went to the community college where my dad was teaching. At the end of my freshman year my dad got a job in Pensacola, Florida, and I had a choice. I could go there, or I could stay and keep doing ballet. I went to Pensacola.
This was all during the end days of the Vietnam War, which was partly why two of my brothers went to Costa Rica. Our family had gone in 1967 during the early days of the Vietnam War because my dad was looking ahead saying, “Do we want to leave the country?” With four sons, the war didn't look like a great thing, and there was a Quaker community in Costa Rica that my grandfather had been a part of creating in response to the peacetime draft leading up to the Korean War. My older brother was struggling with school and of draft age, and my next younger brother had gotten in sideways with the law. So, my dad sent them off to Costa Rica for a year. I participated in a couple small anti-war protests at that time; my dad was pretty vocal on campus. Being anti-war in Alabama was not a popular thing to do. We did a lot of things that weren't popular at the time.
[In] Pensacola we enrolled in the community college there and I thought, “Well one thing I did learn from this ballet experience is that if I enroll us in a dance class for a required PE credit, we will be outnumbered, a lot more women than men, and this will be good for our social life!”
So, I enrolled in a folk dancing class, and I registered my brother, too, even though he hadn't made it back from Costa Rica yet. That turned out to be pivotal for our lives. The class itself wasn't that great, but there was a group that did recreational folk dancing at a gallery downtown that would send a scout to our class looking for men because it turned out that in social folk dancing the size of a group was limited by the number of men.
I still dance. I've been doing this my whole life. In fact, at times I thought about doing it professionally and even started a dance company at one point.
started a folk-dance club, and I became president of the sailing club. It was fun and I was studying math because I was good at math, and I could be right; math is unambiguous - you're either right or you're not and I liked that clarity.
When I was a senior, kind of by default, I pursued certification to teach. So, I was gonna have to go teach in a high school. It was an awful experience. When I reflect on it, I think back like “I hated high school why would I like it any better as a teacher?”
When I graduated, I didn't have a definitive plan; so, I thought I’d apply for PhD programs in math. I wound up going to Louisiana State University. I’m 19 in a PhD program and LSU is one of the top math programs at the time and it was a lot of pressure. It was the first time I didn't live at home, and I wasn't having fun. Once I saw what having a PhD in mathematics meant I dropped out and went back to Pensacola.
Shifting into Entrepreneurship
Editor’s Note: Drew Harris tried it all: longshoreman loading grain, construction work, demolition crew, and then less physically demanding jobs like computer work, consulting and more. Each time he learned, pivoted, gathered something in that eventually became part of his overall rich package of skills that allowed him to complete an MBA and PhD and develop college courses at many universities, including CCSU, in entrepreneurship. His failures helped him become a better advisor for college and graduate students who could perhaps learn from his mistakes. In this portion of the interview, he explains some of his experiences.
Failed First Business
[Buying a business - a gas station/convenience store/trailer park] was a pivotal part in my life… [He and his dad] were on the hook for $250,000 [in loans], which in today’s dollars would be like $750,000. I’m 20 years old, which is kind of crazy, and [the debt] was a lot of motivation to get up and work. We worked and worked and worked, we changed things, but we couldn’t make it work. Finally, we had a friend who was an accountant come look at it and he said, “Oh boy you guys are in trouble.” It was a really important part of my life because it changed the discipline of my working.
It’s one of those stories that has me be passionate about teaching people about business. If I can stop even one young person from doing the things I did wrong it would be a gift, and I'm pretty sure I’ve done that.
Working in Computers in the 1970s
After that I was struggling and back to odd jobs. I was at my dad’s office at the community college one day saying, “Oh I’m so sick of this.” I had been doing some roofing… “I want a job where I use my brain instead of my brawn.”
[A friend of my dad’s] poked his head around the door of the office and said, “I couldn’t help but overhear you and have you ever considered computer programming.” I was like, “No, but tell me!”
This was in 1977. I sold my motorcycle to pay the tuition [for a few classes] and I got a job pretty much right away. It turned out I was pretty good at that.
Shifting to Corporate Work and Learning to Write
Editor’s Note: Harris eventually went to work as a consultant at Arthur Young & Co. He recounts an experience where a supervisor challenged his writing skills again and again.
I wrote this proposal and gave it to my manager and the next day he came in and Freddy Kruger must’ve attacked him because there was red, like he bled out, nothing but red ink. I was like “God, I thought I wrote better than that.”
So I rewrote it and two days later I handed it to him again and Freddy attacked it again! Back and forth it went for like six iterations. We then gave it to the managing partner and Freddy attacked him, red ink all over the thing. I remember going into his office and he said, “See here when you say ‘we feel’ we don’t ‘feel’ here, we think.” It was discouraging on the one hand, but I also learned to write, and I embraced that. In the next cycle it was shorter, less blood. So, I wound up being on the new business development team.
Getting Married in His Forties and His Wife Experiences Post-Partum Psychosis
Friends were sort of talking about me, thinking I was gonna be one of those old bachelors. I was about to turn 40, never married, and didn’t look like I was even close to that. [He went on a lunch date with Teresa] and I remember that kind of towards the end of my lunch I thought, “Holy cow this might be the woman I want to marry.” And we did! We bought a house in Jersey and decided to have a child. After giving birth, my wife had a bad tear and a hard recovery and we didn’t know it at the time, because nobody was talking about it, but she was slipping into psychosis; she had post-partum psychosis, which meant that she had hallucinations, she was paranoid, she was depressed. It was a whole set of things. At one point she hallucinated that she had killed our daughter. It’s this weird thing - my daughter’s fine, but [Teresa] has the lived experience of having killed our daughter because the hallucination was that real. [At the time] she didn’t tell me about it.
I knew something was off. She was yelling at me every day and she’d call me and plead, “I think someone’s downstairs. Did you lock the doors when you left? Can you come home?”
And she was depressed for quite a while after that.
Editor’s Note: Teresa has written extensively on post-partum psychosis and has even done a TEDx Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7gyRpTkSP0)
SETTLING INTO CCSU <?p>
I came to CCSU in 2006. We had spent six years in rural Virginia, and we needed to be back in a more vibrant place. To my surprise, I was asked to lead our entrepreneurship program (I had been teaching business strategy in Virginia). It was like a new start to teaching; I loved it, especially the enthusiasm students brought to the courses. I networked around the state and raised money for elevator pitch and business plan competitions. We sent students to state-wide competitions and won. One of the joys of staying here so long has been my ongoing relationship with many alumni – I am connected to over 300 on LinkedIn. They validate my career and keep me young.
Interview transcript edited for length and clarity by Lucia Spielman.
“I keep things in the past because it allows me to not dwell on the past in order to keep moving forward.”
I visited Janet at her home in Unionville, CT where she has lived for nearly 60 years. She has overcome significant challenges in her life starting with polio as a young child. As she struggled with the disease, she had to live away from her family on and off in her youth, which made her fiercely independent out of necessity. Janet went on to lead a full life: married, had three children, divorced and then provided for her family as a single mother. She strives to be as independent as possible while also understanding that she needs assistance. She is willing to ask for help from family, friends and neighbors when needed. This was evident to me as she explained a recent close encounter with a bear on the previous day as well as organizing and leaving to spend the winter in Florida the next day.
Quarantined for a Year as Child in 1955 for Polio
At four years old I was diagnosed with polio. It was 1944 during the polio epidemic. The boy next door had rheumatic fever so I was being treated for that, for about a month, until I started to limp. I went to the Children’s Hospital in Newington. My parents dropped me off and I had to say good bye to my [four] siblings at home. Missing them was the main challenge I faced. I have very vivid memories of the dress I was wearing and the trauma of leaving me off and [them] driving away. I was in a bed in the hall with other patients. When you first arrived, they covered you with wet, hot, wool blankets. I still remember the smell of the wool. It was frightening. I stayed there for a year.
Polio was a virus. The vaccine was released in 1955 and I did get the vaccine because you can get polio again. Supposedly when you have polio you didn’t get the other childhood diseases [chickenpox, mumps, and measles] but I did get mild cases of some of them.
No one was allowed in to see me, like COVID and nursing homes today. My siblings came once in a while and waved to me from the parking lot. Hospitals were closed because they were full, this is also like COVID. They never knew where or how I got it; my two sisters didn’t get it and I shared a bedroom with them. We all felt it was a miracle no one else in the family had it.
I turned out to be a monster in the hospital and was locked up many nights. They would roll my bed into the bathroom and I would have to sleep in there. I would break into the cabinet where the goodies were and give them to the other kids. I was able to get out of bed but a lot of kids couldn’t. They knew it was me because my cast dropped pieces of plaster on the floor. I would get the paper bags that the food came in and food that no one liked (stuffed peppers and oatmeal) I would flush down the toilet.
I was paralyzed on my whole left side. They worked on my arms and legs. I came home with crutches –the remaining damage was that I became permanently paralyzed below the left knee. I had a brace and used crutches.
When I was released, I came back and went to kindergarten for a few weeks in June until school got out. My mother threw a huge birthday and homecoming party for me. It was outside and a really big deal.
At ten I had to go back for corrective surgery on my leg. There wasn’t outpatient therapy at the time – so I had to stay at the hospital during the week and come home on weekends for about a year. Finally, our family had a car so I could go back and forth.
One time, in a wooden wheelchair, I went down to the janitor’s Coke machine in the basement and put two very cold Cokes under my pajamas to take back upstairs. I never got caught for that. Also, I would take love notes to the boys’ ward from the girls’ ward.
In high school the brace came off and crutches were gone. I was very involved in high school, especially sports. I managed the field hockey and basketball teams.
The experience of being on my own at a young age made me more independent.
Working Single Mom
I went to work for Hartford Electric Light for 6 years, now Eversource, as a key punch operator in the early days of computers.
Meanwhile I got married and had three children. It was a blind date set up. I was married for 11 years and it was a rough, tough marriage. We lived in this house.
I decided it was easier to be a single parent with 3 children than be in a miserable marriage where everyone is miserable. After the divorce I wanted people to be happy for me because I was happy that the marriage was over, but everyone kept telling me how sorry they were. I liked being independent. I could get in a car and go on vacation to Old Orchard, Newport, Rhode Island or Vermont with the kids. If I wasn’t so independent, I would not have done that. He never took the kids. That is his loss. My family was a big source of strength at this time.
After my divorce I went back to work at Abbott Ball in West Hartford. I worked there for 11 years doing computer/ key punch operator work. At this time my youngest was in kindergarten and my parents took care of my kids after school.
Later, after my brother opened a market, I worked there for 9 years. I wanted to help make his business a success since he was so good to me. But eventually the cold and hard work got to me and I moved to Florida for 11 years. Now I just go for winters. I came back to Connecticut because I became a grandmother and wanted to help [my daughters] and spend time with the grandchildren. Now I am a great-grandmother.
I did well until 1985 when I fell and broke my left foot. Ever since then, well my leg was so weak –it was back in the brace with a cane.
Aging with Assistance
Another challenge has been to sit down with my children and talk about my health, plans, end-of-life. No one wants to talk about it. It’s my fault, the kids don’t know what I want and it is very difficult. I want to stay in my home but I need help. The town provides services – but I haven’t needed them. I have Peggy [close friend from high school]. My daughter had Peggy keep my car to keep me safe. It is very hard to give up your car. I went recently for my new license. I haven’t given up completely on driving and am hoping to be able to get back to driving after the winter and am [feeling] better. I used to live in my car; driving 200 miles a day for work sometimes! I enjoyed driving but I drove a month ago and it was a little scary so I kind of get it. I know it is for the best.
My physical challenges are very difficult to manage. I can’t take care of myself. It is a challenge getting dressed, [taking care of] personal needs. [I’m] not able to use my shoulders, I had surgery there. My bones are so soft, maybe from post-polio, but my body is just breaking down and is weak. I have had a lot of falls but not many lately. I have a wonderful neighbor who comes over and helps me.
In the spring I will need to make arrangements for help as well as now going to Florida. It is easier for me to get around in Florida and I have lots of people who help me there. Last week I gave my aide here two weeks notice that I am leaving for Florida and so she quit. This is the current challenge I face--not being able to do for myself.
I never had a lot of pain as a child, or considered myself handicapped, but now I do.
In person interview conducted by Allison Rose, recorded with permission from Janet Kane, November 8, 2020. Story edited for length and flow by Allison Rose.
Don Naples, a native of New Britain who traveled the United States for decades for the Coast Guard before returning to his hometown, opened his interview with reflections on being an Eagle Scout. “Helped me my whole life,” he said, and then talked about a life devoted to service and family. His work placed him at the forefront of the electronics revolution at a time when the IBM personal computer didn’t even exist.
EARLY YEARS AND COAST GUARD
I went into the Coast Guard right out of New Britain High School. It was the only service academy that didn’t require a congressional appointment and I did not have any connection with any congressional people. And, to be honest, I wanted to get a jump on the SAT. The Coast Guard Academy did its own testing using the same company, so I figured I’d get a day off from high school and take the test early, with no pressure. I actually did pretty well on it. Later when I took the SAT I did not score as high.
I never thought I’d make a career in the Coast Guard. My dad got out of college in 1929 during the Great Depression and he said I would be crazy to think about getting out. Every time I mentioned it he’d say, “Stay in.”
Growing up in the Belvidere section of New Britain, I had a sister three years younger than I and a brother who died as a baby. He never came home from the hospital. I was about six at the time. After my mom had the baby, my parents said he had a bad heart but later when I did my family genealogy I found that the cause of death was “mongoloidism,” now called Downs Syndrome. They transferred the baby to a Catholic hospital in Waterbury to die. At that time in the 1940s… Well, it’s a sad case.
My father worked at the New Britain Water Department for forty years from 1929 to 1969 and became chief of the department five years before he retired. My mother was a first-grade teacher and graduated from the Normal School [now Central Connecticut State University] in the late 1920’s.
I knew my father’s father, who was from Italy, and my mother’s mother, whose ancestors came from Ireland. My father’s parents came on their honeymoon [from Italy] and never left. They had six girls then him. When my dad was born in 1903, family legend was my grandfather was so excited he had a phone installed! Up until the 1950s, there was a little bell symbol in the City Directory next to each house that had a phone. Very few homes had phones in the early 1900’s but I saw that my grandfather’s name is listed with no phone in the 1903 directory, but the 1905 edition shows a phone.
After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1960, I was assigned to a ship in Boston. I started out as the Communications Officer. The ship tied up at the Coast Guard base at the bottom of Hanover Street in “Little Italy,” one of the few areas in Boston that has changed very little in the past 60 years.
We’d go out to sea for five weeks out of eight. We’d go to designated ocean stations 200 to 400 miles out, the coldest one being between Greenland and Labrador. We’d pass the Navy picket ships patrolling within 50 miles from shore. They actually had television signals. We had nothing like that. Our ships were smaller and bounced around like corks. I decided about a year into it to switch to shipboard engineering which is a whole different career path. Once you go into naval engineering on a ship, you spend a lot of time in the engine room.
I didn’t see the five weeks out as much of a problem. I was a young bachelor. The other two ensigns on the ship got married early and had families, so when it came time to take the duty in port on Christmas Day, I didn’t mind because then I got New Year’s Eve off.
I did like being at sea. I got a chance to be my own person. And I could look forward to the three weeks that we would be in port before the next trip. Sailors (including officers) didn’t make much money in those days, but I didn’t have anyone to spend it while the ship was out so I felt financially secure.
I got married on “6-2-62” [June of 1962] — two years after graduation. It changed my life to have someone depend on me. Marriage has worked very well for us. We just celebrated our 58th anniversary. My wife Phyllis says, “There’s a lot of togetherness here” during the pandemic. [He laughs.]
Throughout my 30-year Coast Guard career, I was stationed in Boston, Miami, California, New Jersey, Washington, DC (3 tours), Virginia and elsewhere.
I never got assigned any isolated tours, though the Coast Guard had a lot of them. You’d go away for a year—like to a Pacific or Alaskan island somewhere—then come back to family and civilization. We had our kids [two boys] once I got to Miami, which was my first shore assignment after four years on ships out of Boston. We moved often. The moves were part of the job; we knew that. I did not get sent to Vietnam. The Coast Guard did have people there. At the time I was in Miami, they were sending 82-foot patrol boats to work with the Navy river assault groups. It was a very tough environment. Quite a few Coast Guardsmen were killed there.
At that time the Coast Guard had an exchange program with the Air Force. They sent us three pilots and we sent them three pilots. One of our pilots went to Vietnam and earned several medals. His Air Force counterpart was assigned to St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m sure his family thought that was a nice trade, but one of our helicopters went down during a rescue at sea and he was killed. The Coast Guard often flies in crappy weather, which is why I decided not to go to flight school. Coast Guard search & rescue planes and helicopters are out there when the weather is too rough for boats and ships. I didn’t care for that so I went into engineering.
After about a year in Miami, I got a phone call from a detailer [assignment officer] at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington to offer me two years of postgraduate training for electronics engineering. I asked where I would go. He said they sent Academy transcripts to MIT, Purdue and a number of other schools. Each school would typically take one student and the rest would go to the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey [CA, where they always do well, regardless of their Academy grades. He added, “I looked at your transcript and you’ll be going to Monterey.” [Don laughs.]
My whole career changed with that phone call. It was a challenge for me to accept going to graduate school, which I hadn’t planned. For every year of training, you owed them two years, so I was signing up for six more years. After graduating with a BSEE degree, I dealt with a lot of computer-related projects; this was long before the IBM PC s.
I credit a lot of my success in life to a good high school English teacher, for providing skills that I needed throughout my Coast Guard career and beyond. It’s all about excelling in English and that has carried me through to now because if you have command of the language and you can write, you can go far.
LEAVING THE SERVICE
One of my greatest challenges was transitioning from the military to civilian life. It was hard to believe I did that 30 years ago. In 1990 there were not a lot of jobs on the East coast. Our kids were gone.
I got a job as Director of the Communications Department of Alameda County, a large county with headquarters in Oakland [CA], that covers a number of square miles on the East side of the bay. That was a hard transition for me. I can remember not having the right clothes for the interviews. Three sets of interviews and each time I went to Nordstrom’s to get a new suit. At the time I was 52.
RETURNING TO CONNECTICUT
While I was working for the County, my mother got cancer and died. I never really knew her as an adult. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with my dad. So five years later I decided to go back to New Britain, which I never thought I’d do, but I’m so glad I did it because I got to spend his last few years with him. My wife and I opened a little computer store near CCSU called Computer Central, because the CCSU Bookstore didn’t have personal computers, and still doesn’t. In 1996 Windows 95 had just come out. It was very interesting competing with the big box stores, fixing and selling new and used computers. We hired three CCSU students as part time technicians. We were their surrogate parents. We ran that business from 1996 to 1999.
My dad died at the end of 1997 and I got the chance to go back out to California and return to the County of Alameda in the summer of 1999 to head a special project to replace the County Telephone System, working one level lower than my previous job, with a colleague I used to supervise but now she supervised me. My style was more laid back. It was stressful because she knew more about the telephone system there than I ever would. The project wound up taking three years and I learned a lot managing it.
I had to face another challenge just as the telephone system project wrapped up. I was in a 7-year study group trying to check out a drug for prostate cancer to see if it would lower PSA level [an indicator of potential for prostate cancer]. They wanted veterans over 55 to take pills regularly. It was a blind study so we didn’t know if we were taking the drug or a placebo. At the end we all agreed to have a biopsy done. Not a pleasant thing. Some of the guys backed out of the biopsy, but prostate tissue samples were needed for analysis. I knew that my PSA was never over 1, which is very low, because I was getting an annual physical from the military. I was surprised when I got the call that my biopsy had come back positive with a fairly high Gleason [level of cancer] score. My PSA never got over 1 but the biopsy showed I had prostate cancer. I had to do something about it.
We had decided to come back to the house in New Britain. I went in for surgery in 2002 just as we were leaving the Alameda area. It was supposed to be a four-hour operation but the surgeon had to abort it. He couldn’t do the operation because of complications, so he recommended doing something else, like radiation. We lived in a hotel nearby for 30 days while I recuperated and searched for alternate treatments. It was all a surprise and very challenging. I ended up getting Proton Beam Therapy and making a full recovery.
GIVING BACK TO NEW BRITAIN
I started volunteering two days a week in the New Britain Mayor’s office in January of 2004. While there I was appointed to serve on the Zoning Board of Appeals. By then I had worked at nearly every level of government. Someone asked me to run for Alderman on the City Council in 2009. I hadn’t thought about that and didn’t know what I was doing and I lost. In 2011 I lost again, but by only 13 votes. In 2013 I was elected and served for six years, retiring in November of 2019. I was appointed as a Public Works commissioner in 2020.
These days I spend most of my time working with local nonprofits, singing in barbershop harmony groups and doing philanthropy work. As my dad once said to me, “I’ve had a good run.”
For more on Don’s military service, visit: https://www.facebook.com/NewBritainCT/videos/172354587551870
Interview conducted July 2020, WebEx, by Professor Mary Collins
During her early years, Joan Saddler grew up in a rural area in Windsor but then her family moved to Hartford while she was still in grammar school. The daughter of two working parents and the sister to five siblings, she had all the benefits of a stable, middle class homelife. But her blended heritage—part Cherokee, part African American, part white—presented unique challenges for her as she moved through school and society in general. She reflects on those challenges and her epiphany about her own sense of self and identity after visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2019.
I come from a multiracial family. We are Native American [Cherokee], African American and European/white. We always knew we were that mixture but didn’t know the percentages but it didn’t matter to [me and my five siblings]. We felt an ownership of all of it. When I was pressed in 5th grade to identify with any race, I chose Native American. It was the one that was the most different. Because I had had relationships with Black kids and white kids, and didn’t feel I was really one of them, but had had no relations with any Native American kids, I figured they must be the most different so I figured that must be what I mostly am.
[As a little kid] growing up in a very rural place [in Windsor], I don’t ever remember a request to identify my race. But then we moved to Hartford and I was asked but they only let me check one box.
My parents did not talk about race. The one and only time I remember them talking about it was when I was in kindergarten. A little kid stood by me and pointed and said, “You’re Black.” I had no idea what he was talking about and did not respond.
When I got home, I asked my mother, “Am I Black?” and she said “Yes.” Then she said, “You are also Native American and white and because you are all of these different things you are very special.”
The impression was that you are definitely not better than anyone but you’re different and because you’re different you’re special. So that’s what I always carried around.
I looked more Native American than either of the other races.
They grew in New York City in the Bronx. My mother was born in New York City but my father was born in Memphis and moved to New York around age 5 to 6 years old.
Because we were closest to my mother’s mother, who still lived in the Bronx in the house where my mother grew up, I know more about my mother’s childhood than my father’s.
My mom was raised in a very middle-class family. She was an only child until age 10 then my Aunt Dorothy was born. They owned their own home. My grandmother was a school teacher. My grandfather was a chauffeur of the owner of what later became Breyer’s Ice Cream so they had jobs during the Depression. I don’t think they were very affected. My mother never spoke about any hardships.
My dad’s parents divorced when he was young and he stayed with his dad and got split up from his brother who went with his mom. His dad brought him to New York but his mother and brother stayed in Memphis. He did not talk about his dad very much and did not have a lot of respect for his father. He said that the one thing he learned from his father was how NOT to be.
[My parents] were pretty tight lipped about everything. They were this presence. They’d come home every night and take care of everything that needed to be fixed, the finances and everything. I remember my father just being this very strong, solid presence in the house. Very, very, very quiet. Didn’t have many conversations with him but in his own way he reached out to us in the only way he knew how. He worked at Hamilton Standard in engineering. He never got a college degree but he was super smart in mathematics and logic. He was often the only African American man in the room.
My parents really did not see race as a hinderance to anything. Doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about you; you know who you are and you are a good human being.
I felt I was different so when I was in Windsor, which was mostly white kids, I hung out with the Black kids but when we were in Hartford, and it was mostly Black kids, I hung out with this small pocket of white kids. I always identified with whomever was different.
[I went to Loomis Chaffee, a private high school in Windsor] which was definitely the brainchild of my mother. She saw how difficult I had had it in 7th and 8th grades and the decline in the quality of education, and she knew that wasn’t the type of education she wanted for me.
I am so glad I went there. I got there, age 13, had braces, thick eyeglasses, terrible acne. I was just a very awkward, unattractive preteen. But when I got to Loomis, there were many geeky unattractive kids just like me! And they were all friendly. I had a wonderful experience.
But I recently received a communication from the school from some students that have had some unfortunate experiences since I was there and who wanted to reach out to someone so they sent me the correspondence. I hope this new generation, which may be facing some unbelievable racial situations, can get some wisdom from my experience. I did not have those experiences, no one in my family did, though maybe my father who did not express anything about it.
TRANSFORMATIVE VISIT TO THE SMITHSONIAN National Museum of African American History and Culture
[In 2019, I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture] with a white girlfriend of mine whom I’d met in 7th grade. She and I had clung to each other in this very frightening, mostly African American school in Hartford. Her mother was the only white member of the NAACP in Hartford and very much a champion of integration and equality for all people. She worked for the government and visited companies to make sure they adhered to affirmative action mandates.
[My friend] wanted to go to this museum very badly. I had not even heard of it. So we had a ladies’ weekend in Washington DC. I had never been to see the monuments.
The museum has several different floors. I wanted to start at the beginning, which was down in the basement. Slaves being brought over to America. Just the visuals and the stories of what these Africans went through coming to the United States--the conditions—well, I was just horrified. And even though you know we’re taught that African people were slaves and brought over, it’s so glossed over. They never got into any of the details.
Anyone who is going to hear [this interview] all I can say is say GO to that Museum.
[Long pause. Joan takes off her glasses and wipes her eyes.]
I am going to start crying.
What I got out of it was a whole new respect for African Americans.
The strength, the resilience, the ability to forgive, is shocking. Just shocking.
The admiration that I have for African Americans now is so humbling. Really, really humbling.
The part that really brought it home to me was the part from the ‘50s and ‘60s. You see these pictures of African American people in what I call “the costume of white America.” They tried so hard to be accepted, so hard to fit in. You see these pictures of women with the Chanel suits, pill box hats, cat eye glasses, and straightened hair, looking the part. Men in their suits, their hair cut very short, the Clark Kent eye glasses; everyone had on the uniform of middle-class white America and they were still “not good enough.”
Fast forward to several years of the Black Panther movement. I do remember my parents talking about how disgraceful the Black Panther movement was. Their attitude was they are not helping the cause by being militant and violent and they are making white people point the finger even more at us.
“See, you are living up to exactly what we said, you people are dangerous, violent, you people are like animals.”
I saw a totally different picture. The Black Panther men were heroes. These guys were like “enough, enough.” We had fallen in line, took marching orders and put on the costume and did everything that would make us equal and still you said you had to go to the back of the bus, had to drink out of a different water fountain and that was the just the little stuff. And little did we know they were lynching us. Just the epiphany of the history. The history of the African American in this country was just so overwhelming.
When my friend and I left that area, we had been in there for hours, and were emotionally exhausted. We couldn’t go any further. We did get to one area where we could see Barak Obama and Michelle Obama and the inauguration gown she wore. Most beautiful….
We made our way to this area called the Reflection Room. Very dimly lit, austere beautiful area where you could sit. There were waterfalls in there and quotes from famous African Americans. Whoever created the space was brilliant.
We get in there and I just started to weep. Just it was an effective place to help you process your own personal experience of what you had just gone through of being in this museum. We sat there for the longest time. We both sat there weeping.
That was one of the most—could say THE most—powerful experience within myself—though some also lately. It’s just a very powerful.
[Long pause. Joan wipes her eyes again.]
PROCESSING THESE CHALLENGING TIMES
What can I do to help the situation?
It’s a daunting question for me because I tend to be a little reclusive. I did get involved in some movements lately in particular against our current president. I did not get out to Black Lives Matter [events] because of a surgical procedure and Covid.
But I do feel the key to getting things equal is education. It was so important in my family and has been my anchor. It can get you where you want to go, to get everyone to a level playing field. I have a lot of ideas about what I want to do in terms of education but aside from schools I feel there need to be avenues for our young people to get an education on real world practical how-to-live-in-society education.
For people who come from generations of poverty, Black people, we need to get these young people up and running in ways their families have not been able to get to.
Fourth of July 2020
I have historically celebrated the 4th of July like anyone else. You know just let’s get together as family, rah, rah, and some fireworks. I’ve never been this patriotic person.
But for the first time it dawned on me.
What was happening to my tribesmen, the Cherokee Nation?
What was happening to the African Americans in 1776? I don’t really know. I know they were in bondage.
What really was going on for those people?
Aside from what was going on for my people, the white part of me, but that’s the only part that has been celebrated and only part ever been spoken of.
And incumbent on us as a society, if we are going to move forward to find the true history of all Americans, we must broadcast and celebrate the true history of all of us. Have it be acknowledged. Have it be faced. It has to be faced.
And I think that’s what people of color are asking for. Recognize.
Then we can move on. Then we don’t have to dwell on the misery. Never forget and move on. To new experiences of togetherness of true togetherness.
There will always be people of all colors who choose ignorance, people not best examples of what a human being can be, but for those of us that recognize you are an individual, and you can make a difference, it’s incumbent to act as an individual to make a difference.
“There is a myth among women activists that women of my generation just stayed home all the time…But most of my friends went to work.”
Ruth Solomkin, born in 1919 of Jewish parents, was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the third of five children. Her father died at the age of 54 leaving her mother, with no employment experience, to raise her children ranging in age from 6 years old to late teens. Her life story of more than a century resonates with such personal losses, including a sister who died at age 27, her husband, Mark Solomkin whom she married in 1942, who died in 1973, and a daughter who passed away in 1998.
But Ruth and Mark had many joyous years raising their son and daughter in Connecticut. Ruth worked for 15 years as an academic counselor at the University of Hartford, and Mark was an Obstetrician/Gynecologist. After Mark’s death, she enjoyed a loving relationship with a man who, with his late wife, had been close friends with the Solomkins. Again and again, Ruth weathered personal tragedy and desperate times, such as the Great Depression with her single mother, and sustained an inspiringly positive outlook on life.
On Being 101 and in Assisted Living
“I don’t know any other 100-year-old person who had a bag piper play Happy Birthday to them!”
Duncaster, Bloomfield, CT
Everybody thinks it’s so wonderful to live this long. It has its downside, and the downside is losing people that you care about—losing most of them, certainly, because even most of my friends are gone.
I have lived at Duncaster for almost three years. And it’s the most wonderful facility. And I have made many friends. Many of them have moved from other facilities because they have family living in this area. And Duncaster works very hard to make people get together, and they have programs and social stimulation. I have a very small family and nobody lives close by, so that it’s a terrific environment for me. They do not only want you to be safe and healthy, they want you to be happy. So they plan a lot of programs and they have their own television channel on which they offer very many interesting lectures and musical programs, and movies.
I am very fortunate to have a close relationship with my son and all of my grandchildren. One of my late daughter’s close friends also keeps in contact with me. When times are more normal, we have lunch together, and she calls me regularly and picks me up to go out and asks me if I need anything.
When it was my 100th birthday, I gave myself a birthday lunch. And Joan Walden, who is a faculty member at Central Connecticut [State University], and her husband have been very supportive and caring friends. Joan just loves everything Scottish. And she surprised me at my birthday celebration by having a bag piper come in and play Happy Birthday on the bag pipe, and it was so much fun. And I don’t know any other 100-year-old person who had a bag piper play Happy Birthday to them!
On Living Through Multiple Cultural and Social Changes
I lived through so many monumental changes in society. I lived through the Great Depression, my husband served in World War II, one of my brothers served in the Korean War, and my son was in Vietnam for two years. And then to live to see, as a registered Democrat, an African American president, when I stayed up to watch the election returns when Obama was elected, and I have to tell you that I started to cry, because I thought I would never live to see that. And here, the Americans had the good sense to elect an African American, who I think is so intelligent, and wanted to do so much good, and then--well I won’t go into a discussion about what happened since then. [Laughs]
When the pill was invented, it gave women a lot of freedom. And to see that women, you know, I don’t think they had as much power as they should have. In my lifetime, to see that women were not being admitted to law school or medical school. And now, more women are in medical school than men. More women are in rabbinical school then men. And to have lived to see all that is very gratifying. It really is.
You know, there is a myth among women activists, that women of my generation just stayed home all the time and played bridge and watched TV. But most of my friends and I waited until our children were either in high school, or in college, and then went to work. Every friend that I had did that, several of them got degrees, like in education or nutrition or literature.
On Living, and Coping Through the Covid-19 Pandemic
One of the things about the pandemic is the anxiety about catching it for old people. And secondly, what has seemed to me to be happening is that people are expressing how tired they are and I think that’s a result of really being depressed and expressing itself in fatigue. We’re not able to go out other than for 30 minutes a day for a walk, or to go to medical or dental appointments. And you’re leading such an abnormal life. I mean you can’t go out to a movie. Again, Duncaster always planned a trip to go to a museum, or to the theater, none of those things are available now. And while they plan a lot of television programs that are very interesting, it’s not the same thing as getting dressed to go out and be in a group and enjoying something.
Just this week, they’re opening up the fitness classes. You have to register, they’re only allowing 15 people in the room at one time, and, of course, you have to wear a mask. Before, they had fitness classes six days a week and they had a whole variety of classes. Now they’re having just one offering. And they also opened the library, but it’s only for two hours, two days a week and only two people are allowed in the library.
And, oh, yes, I will be attending! I am a firm believer that being involved in exercise classes is very helpful in maintaining your mentality. But I’m not an athlete. I’m a terrible swimmer. I was an awful tennis player. I couldn’t play golf. But I’ve always been a big proponent of exercise classes and I’ve been going to them since I was in my early 30’s. I think I’m very fortunate—knowing what day it is and remembering where I put my glasses. [Laughs]
[My mother’s] whole outlook was that you don’t let things keep you from moving forward. And the second thing is that you can’t let people who care about you and love you see you in a sorrowful state all of the time. When my son and my granddaughters call me, if I sound like I’m up it makes them so happy. I think part of the reason they want to call me is because they’re not going to hear me say, “Oh, I’m feeling so down today and it was such a terrible day.”
[Asked if she ever has a terrible day] Oh, sure!
On Losing Her Father and a Sibling
I was fortunate to have had a very strong mother. When my father died it was a terrible struggle for her because she wasn’t equipped to work. She wouldn’t let herself be grief stricken all the time, although she was. And then my sister died when she was only 27, which was a terrible blow for my mother. But she wouldn’t give up.
I was 23 years old when my sister died. She was married, and was a healthy 27 year old woman. She went into the hospital for a minor procedure, but developed pneumonia. She was treated with an antibiotic that caused an allergic reaction, kidney failure and, tragically, her death. We had always had a very close relationship because she was always very maternal towards me. And I was in my last month of pregnancy in Hartford. The war was on. She died in St. Louis. And I couldn’t go home even for the funeral because I was pregnant, and because you couldn’t fly then. Air travel was reserved for military and government people and civilians couldn’t fly unless they had a government mission. And to go back on the train was an overnight trip. It was about 24 hours.
I can’t begin to tell you the feelings of loss I experienced. My mother and one of her sisters came to Hartford a month later because I was due to deliver in December, and my sister died in November. I felt very isolated and very alone because my husband’s family was not a very warm or welcoming family.
And my mother and her sister came up and they stayed in Hartford for a month. When they went back at the end of January, I was so homesick and lonesome that I took the baby and went home and stayed for a month. And, of course, it was my family and they were much more responsive. They knew exactly what I was going through and could identify with me and it helped me a great deal. By the time I came back to Hartford at the beginning of April, I felt more capable of handling what I had to handle.
My sister was the eldest of us five children. She taught me how to read and write when I was four years old. She and I used to play school. She would be the teacher and I was the student. And, I think because of that I skipped a grade. I went from kindergarten to second grade. And so I graduated high school when I was 16 and college when I was 20. And I owe it all to my sister. She used to take me to the library every week and supervise what books I should take out. You know because my mother had five children and no help, and in those days there wasn’t even a washing machine. I was very fortunate to have that kind of relationship with my sister.
Telephone Interview conducted by Claire Hibbs-Cusson, recorded with permission from Ruth Solomkin, July 7, 2020. Story edited for length and flow.