MAHOPAC, N.Y.— Catherine Villanova drives herself to work four times a week to the Laundry Room laundromat on Clark Street in Mahopac, where she sits behind an 85-year-old commercial-grade sewing machine and makes repairs and alterations.
Villanova is more than 10 years older than the sewing machine. She’s 95.
“Ninety-five and a half,” she corrects.
The way she’s going, she might have another 95 years left in her.
Villanova has lived her life out loud—the wife of a World War II military vet who has lived on both coasts and boasts four children, 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
During WWII, she was a real-life Rosie the Riveter—one of thousands of women across the country who stepped into manufacturing jobs for the war effort while the men were overseas fighting. She has a framed letter from the Department of the Interior to prove it, acknowledging that her biography is part of the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Museum collection.
Villanova was born in Italy but came to New York City as a 6-year-old in 1928 with her mother.
“We spent 15 days on the ship,” she recalled. “The men were on one side; the girls were on the other—all in bunk beds in one big room. We landed in Ellis Island and my father was waiting for us.”
She says she still vividly remembers going through customs on Ellis Island.
“It was very congested,” she said. “And you couldn’t be sick or they’d send you back.”
He name is now on a plaque on Ellis Island that lists immigrants who passed through customs there, paid for by her daughter, Anna Marie Iannotta, when the Port Authority was raising money to rehabilitate the Statue of Liberty. Iannotta took her mom back to see the plaque a few years ago, marking the first time Villanova had return to the island since 1928.
“It was awesome,” she said of the experience.
The family settled in the Bronx where her father worked for the subway system (the IRT back then) doing repairs and maintenance.
“The subway was 5 cents a ride then,” she said. “They didn’t have a lot of the safety features that they have now, so my father saw a lot of [workers] get hit [by trains].”
Villanova attended Jane Adams High School, which is where she learned how to sew—a skill that’s served her well throughout her life.
“I used to help my mother with her [sewing] work,” she said.
Her mother wasn’t the only one who benefited from her skills. She made wedding dresses for two daughters, and prom dresses for just about every girl in her family.
After high school, she landed a job in the Garment District earning $9 a week. When she asked for a raise, her employer said no, so she quit and found other employment.
“I went to a company called Bo Peep; they made children’s clothes, and they paid me double—$18 a week,” she said. “But I had to give just about everything I earned to my dad.”
Villanova soon got married and moved with her husband to California when he was stationed there. She took a job that was the antithesis of a seamstress. She became a riveter.
“I got a job at Vultee Aircraft in Downey (Calif.); they made trainee planes,” she said. “The rivets were frozen and when you hit them with the tool, they heated up and expanded.”
As a female in the workforce, she said she didn’t encounter too much sexism, except for one defining moment.
“Most of the men I dealt with were very nice to me,” she recalled. “That is, until they found out I was pregnant. Then they fired me. I had been working there for over a year but they didn’t notice until I was eight months along. We had to wear these long overalls, which were like a disguise for a while!”
One of the fondest memories she has from working at Vultee was meeting Edward Rickenbacker, the WWI American fighter ace and Medal of Honor recipient, who stopped by the factory to visit.
Her husband was eventually deployed to England and Villanova moved back to New York to live with family. After the war, the couple bought a luncheonette in the Bronx, where her husband did the cooking (he was a cook in the Army) and Villanova waited tables.
In 1965, they sold the luncheonette and moved to Mahopac.
“One day, our son was on his paper route and got mugged,” she said. “That’s when we decided to move. We had friends who lived up here and we liked the area, so we bought a house and haven’t moved since.”
The couple owned Baldi’s, a luncheonette on the corner of Clark and Route 6N in Mahopac, for 14 years. They also ran a dry-cleaning business in Peekskill. Then they opened a laundromat on Route 6 before moving it to its current location on Clark. Several years ago, Villanova passed the business on to her son, William, but she still comes in four days a week to work her magic on her ancient sewing machine.
When she’s not at The Laundry Room, she likes to take trips to Mohegan Sun, where she enjoys playing the slots and some blackjack.
“Once I won $3,000 playing the slots, but they got it all back,” she said with a laugh. “But I like going up there and spending the day. It’s a chance to relax and forget everything. I am blessed that at my age I still have my faculties and I can still work. And I can still drive.”
Villanova said she would love to see the government formally honor the surviving Rosie the Riveters in some way.
“They don’t recognize us at all,” she said. “And I don’t think there are too many of us left around.”