OLEAN, NY – As soon as fellow TAPinto reporter Jason Klaiber and I knocked on the door of LaDorna Fox’s beautiful red house, she opened the door and greeted us.
“Come on in. No, no, don’t take your shoes off. And put your coat right over there,” Fox said, pointing to a chair in the corner of the front room.
That front room she had decorated with her own hand-painted artwork -- one piece on display on an easel by the window and others on the walls. She had set the table with blue and white porcelain and had coffee and doughnuts ready to serve.
We had not met Fox before, knowing only that she had recently been honored with a key to the City of Olean for 25 years of service by Mayor William Aiello . Since I had no idea how old she was, I asked.
“Eighty-five.” Fox responded. “I don’t look it, but I am.”
She smiled and that’s when I knew it was going to be an interesting conversation.
I asked about her honor of getting that key to the city. She smiled modestly and said that it was very nice of the mayor to do that.
And the next simple question got us her whole life story.
“Did you grow up in Olean?”
“I was born in the Olean General Hospital,” she said.
And she mentioned that she was seventh from the top of her graduating class of “265 kids.”
Fox listed her places of employment: Leo’s Grocery, “the old Olean Theater” – the one down below the tracks,” Clark Brothers Co. and AVX. She has been “an art teacher on the side,” an alderman and chairman of the Olean Zoning Board.
At the theater, “I ran the candy store,” Fox said. “They put me in as manager at the candy store. That’s a big title for doing a lot of work and paid nothing.”
She met her husband at that theater.
“My husband came to work as the manager of the theater the same day I was there as the manger of the candy store,” Fox said with the biggest smile of that morning. “It was a hot romance. So we got married right out of school, and I was only 18 or 19.”
She added, “I was married for 55 years to the same man, Roger Fox.”
Her husband died in 2005. Their only child, a son they named Larry, died from cancer when he was 45, she said.
Their son lived next door to them, and his widow, Cynthia, is still there.
“She is the only close relative that I have,” Fox said. “She is my heir.”
She grew up in the house she lives in.
“We moved back to the house I grew up in because my father was not well, and my mother needed me,” she explained,
Fox let us know she often started her work ventures without knowing how to do the job and without guidance. She kept hearing “you’ll learn” from her bosses every time she was hired for a job that involved work she had not done before. Those “you’ll learn” responses motivated her to show her bosses she could learn.
“I needed a job, so I went down to Clark Brothers -- what Dresser-Rand used to be." And she recalled saying, “I don’t know what I can do, but find me something to do.”
Clark Brothers had work for her as a payroll clerk, a job she kept for four years. One day a week she wrote 1,200 check. And she used her hands to demonstrate the rhythm she would get into when writing that many checks.
When her husband returned from serving with the Marines, Fox became pregnant with their son.
“In those days when you got pregnant, you lost your job. There was no help, they didn’t pay you anything anywhere, you just went home and took care of your kid,” Fox said. “So I lost my job. I had to quit my job and take care of my kid.”
When her son turned 3, Fox said she looked in the paper for a job and saw an ad for a payroll clerk down at AVX. “So I went down and said ‘Here I am’ and they said ‘What can you do?’ I said 'Anything. I can do payroll.’ ”
Because she had experience, AVX hired her right away and she worked there for six years. Because her husband started having heart problems, she quit her job at AVX and started teaching art at a Methodist Church.
“There was no place here where you could study art so I taught myself,” Fox said.
Fox continued her story with a smile and a laugh here and there.
In 1991, Fox decided she liked politics and always had.
“I was always active in the political arena. I carried petitions up and down the street; I worked polls and did all of that kind of stuff,” Fox said.
Fox ran for alderman unopposed. “It was great, and I learned an awful lot about the city and what was going on in it and I was on a lot of committees,” Fox said.
As an alderman she helped negotiate fire contracts and investigated “who was spending the money and stuff.” She noted that she had a lot of fun while doing it.
After her two years as alderman were up, the ward she represented was combined with the ward next to hers.
“So the girl who was in Ward Two had to run against me for the job. She won, I didn’t,” Fox said. “In the meantime I had gotten interested in the zoning board.”
The board met for 14 months for the process of "rezoning the city,” Fox said. “It took a lot of time and a lot energy to do that and I knew nothing about the background of zoning until I did that. But that was a wonderful education.”
When the zoning board chairman retired in 2002, Fox was elected chairman and served until she left the board in 2016.
“I resigned because I thought it was time for me to go,” Fox said. “We were getting some new people on the board and I thought this is the time because the young people should be taking over. The city is making changes. This is a good time for the young people to be in position.”
Fox continued her story by telling us about working with the YMCA and Meals on Wheels.“My son said, ‘Mother, come to the Y and do this and come to the Y and do that.’ and guess what? Mother did,” Fox said. “My husband did Meals on Wheels with me. He drove the car, and I would deliver the meals,” Fox said, adding with a smile that she had met a lot of people and that it had been an interesting experience.
She noted that everything she did – from working as a payroll clerk to teaching art and to becoming an alderman and zoning board member – always gave her wonderful education.
“I read a lot of books and I’ve done a lot of studying on my own and learned a lot of things in this world that I wanted to know,” she said.
Fox gave us a grand tour of the first floor of her 10-room house, explaining in great detail the paintings on her walls. Moving from one painting to the next with a memory to recall, she let us know which she had done and which had been done by students and mentors.
She pointed to a painting hung alone on a wall and explained it showcased her house and some of her neighbors' homes. She did that one. she said, so she could remember what the neighborhood looked like before the hospital took over some of the land.
For the past seven years, Fox has been teaching different painting styles at the Inkwell and said she likes watercolor the best.
“I have classes once a week. I teach you what you need to do, and see what you can do,” Fox explained. “I like my students and like that everyone is different. I make them be individual. You’re the only person that is like you, so you paint what you want to paint, and I’ll teach you how to make it good.”