The gift of wings
“My mother gave me my wings,” says Mary Fisher. “She told me to look for the good in others, and forget all else.”
Her mother’s philosophy is simple, but it takes courage, discipline, creativity, and love to live it consistently for 87 years as Mary has done – especially when you’re one of thirteen children in an immigrant family, a teen during the Depression, then an elementary school teacher, and a mother of four.
Even with those traits, wings don’t always guarantee the gift of graceful flight. Eagles soar, seagulls glide, but chickens flutter around on the ground. Mary turned out to be a kin of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Her maternal grandparents came from Czechoslovakia to Leisenring, Pennsylvania, with two children. Their third child, Mary Kristanko, was born there. Andrew Chmeliar came from Slovakia to Leisenring when he was 14. He fell in love with Mary Kristanko. When the Kristanko family moved to Farrell, Andrew followed. He married Mary Kristanko when she was 16 and he was 21.
Andrew worked for a short time at the Miller Hotel. When he left there, he changed his name from Chmeliar to Miller. Then he worked on street construction in Farrell, driving the roller in preparation for the laying of the paving bricks. But he only did that a short time, too.
“My mother was a very enterprising woman,” Mary said, “but she and Dad always did things together. They bought property on Haywood Street and put up a yellow brick building, from Hamilton Avenue to the alleyway.”
They lived there, opened a grocery store, and rented out apartments. Then they opened a bottling works to bottle Orange Crush, root beer, and Nehi products.
Mary, born on December 24, 1918, was the ninth of thirteen children. As she grew older, she often took care of her younger siblings.
“I never realized I was a babysitter. I enjoyed doing what I was doing because I just loved playing school or dramatics or whatever.”
Mary loved to read.
“There was no library in Farrell then, but there was an Episcopal church that had books to lend out. I always had my nose in a book.”
While she was in high school, Mary worked in the “pop shop.” But her mother made sure she had the opportunity to spread her wings.
“One day I was out in the shop labeling. I was called to come to the office. Somebody wanted to see me. It was Doctor Rudesill from Thiel. He offered me a scholarship.”
Mary went one year to Thiel, then transferred to Slippery Rock State Teachers College. In the summer she worked for a WPA playground program.
“I loved it there. I was having so much fun with all those young children. I told Mom I wanted to be an elementary teacher.”
On October 17, 1937, the Slippery Rock dorm Mary was living in caught fire and burned to the ground.
“The week before my mom had brought me my nice lined winter coat, a winter suit, and other warm clothes. I lost them all in the fire. Fortunately no one was hurt.”
After graduating from Slippery Rock in 1940, Mary worked as interim librarian at the Farrell Public Library, which was upstairs over the fire station. Her first teaching job was substituting from April to the end of the term for a teacher who was pregnant. She turned what could have been a routine job into a creative, memorable experience.
“In the Farrell Library I had read The Village that Learned to Read, by Elizabeth Kent Tarshis. I asked my class if they would like to do it as a play. We had to have a donkey, so I created one out of two burlap sacks, and made the head and tail.”
Because of World War II, teachers were going into the service or joining their husbands, so Mary had a succession of temporary teaching and school librarian jobs.
She was also a girl scout leader. One year she helped them stage a musical titled “Charlie Was a Sailor.” Charlie traveled to different countries, and they sang songs from each country. For Mexico, they serenaded a donkey, so Mary resurrected the one from her school play.
“When we put it on for other troops in Sharon High School, I got into the donkey suit, and the audience was never supposed to be told who it was. It was funny when they found out who it was in that donkey suit.”
Mary went to dances at St. Anne’s Church. There she met Rudy Fisher.
“He would just eye me and we would dance. But one time he and a friend had a truck I was there with a friend. They insisted on having us ride home with them.”
She corresponded with Rudy while he was serving the South Pacific. They became engaged when he was home on leave.
Mary recently told her family what attracted her to Rudy.
“We both came from large families. He talked about his family. He was very close to his mom.”
While he was in the service, he sent all of his savings bonds home.
“His mother kept every single one. She wrapped them up and handed them all to him the day we were married.”
That was February 2, 1946. For a while they lived in her parents’ house. Her mother had passed away and her father was in California visiting Mary’s brother and sister.
“My younger brothers and sisters were at home, so we stayed to help with them and with the expenses. We were both working. I worked at the playground and I was teaching. We were saving money.”
With their savings, they bought a car and a box trailer. For the next two years they traveled to California and other places. When she got pregnant, they came back and lived in the trailer in a Hermitage trailer park. After Patricia was born on April 18, 1950, they moved into a bigger trailer.
Rudy started working in construction. In 1951, they pulled their trailer to Florida and lived there for six months while Rudy worked on the space center at Cape Canaveral.
When they came back, they bought some property in Reynolds, parked the trailer on it, and started building a house.
“Servicemen were helping each other getting their houses started. My husband would go off and help them, and they would come and help him. The trailer was a nice experience because I was right there. I’d have to go out and tell him it’s time to go to bed. We moved into the house when our second child Linda was born, in 1953.”
Their son Daniel was born in 1954 and their third daughter Shirley in 1956.
During this time Rudy worked with his military friends to build the Reynolds VFW post. He was active in it for the rest of his life. He was also active in the carpenters’ union.
When Shirley started first grade, Mary went back to teaching. She taught in the Reynolds school system, mostly sixth grade, for 20 more years.
Perhaps the highlight was when Jim and Mary Winner’s daughter Becky nominated her for an “apple for the teacher” award from A&P stores and WKBN Radio.
“Imagine little old Transfer gets these two big boxes of huge Washington state apples, one for each member of my class, one for each of the teachers. It was something I can’t forget.”
Their daughter Linda married Bernard Theiss in 1974 and had two children, a son Legend and daughter Wren.
Rudy retired in 1981 and Mary in 1982. Their daughter Patty and husband Rudy Vido were expecting twins, but Rudy never got to meet them. He died suddenly of a blood clot before Katie and Carrie were born.
But the seagull in Mary could not be grounded. She started taking Anderson bus tours with her sister. They also traveled to Plavnica, Slovakia, to visit her father’s birthplace and to meet relatives who still live there.
Although Mary was retired, she still wanted to be involved with children.
“I bought an outfit and went to visit Kindergartens. We would sing songs and I would tell stories. They started calling me Mother Goose. Then I went to senior centers and did a humorous routine. Some of them called me Minnie Pearl because I had a price tag hanging from my sleeve.”
A heart condition caused her to move into the John XXIII home recently, but she is still an inspiration to those around her. Residents and staff alike love her ever-present smile and her cheerful greetings, although some are startled by her shouts when she is watching Steelers football games.
She enjoys visits from her children and grandchildren, including Scott and Heather, the children of Dan’s second wife Donna.
“I love it here,” she said. “I feel like I’m on vacation. I spend my time writing and enjoying life.”
Mary was delighted to discover that Dave DeMasy, one of the boys in the play she staged during her first year of teaching, is a volunteer at John XXIII. Dave was equally delighted.
“I would love to hear from other former students and friends,” she said.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008