A Christmas Gift (of Gab)
You can take the Irish girl out of New England, but you can’t take New England (or the Irish) out of the girl. Not that you would ever want to. If you did, Cay Mack wouldn’t be Cay Mack – and the Shenango Valley would be deprived of a precious asset.
Cay is proud of her Irish roots, which were transplanted from Ireland to New England late in the 19th century. She is blessed with the best of Irish traits, including the legendary “gift of gab.” She tells tales with hardly a pause for breath.
For example: “My great-great-grandfather Michael Cunningham had a draying business in Ireland, with teams of horses and barges. His son, also named Michael, was an only child, which is unusual in Irish families. Young Michael’s mother remarried. He was only sixteen when he heard rumors that his stepfather was going to take off the name Michael Cunningham & Son and put his name on the business. This was too much for 16 year old Michael. He took one of the barges, hitched up a team of horses, and down to the dock he went. He sold the horses and the barge, booked passage for America and never went back. Oh, his broken-hearted mother. Michael was educated. Well, the English didn’t allow us to be educated in the first place. We would have hedge-masters. They would be crouched down, the hedges would be grown up, so the hedge-masters could teach the children. If they were found out, they would be deported to wherever they were deporting people – maybe Australia. My great-grandmother came from Ireland with three or four sisters. She would never go back over. Michael got very sentimental. He wanted to go back home. He wouldn’t go without her, so he never did go back.”
The family’s transplanted roots grew deep into the New England soil. Nevertheless, Harold and Catherine O’Keefe Bell moved to Sharon for business reasons before Cay was born. Harold opened an accounting firm, with offices in Youngstown and Sharon. Eventually he closed the Youngstown office and opened one in Meadville.
“Mother and Dad were the only ones in the family who ever left Massachusetts. But their Irish/New England hearts never left. Perish the thought that their first-born should be born in the hills of Pennsylvania. When Mother was pregnant, they went back to Worcester, Massachusetts, in August, 1925. I was born on Christmas Day. We came back here in March.”
Cay grew up here with her brother Harold Jr. and her sister Bernadette. They spent every summer in Massachusetts.
“We enjoyed life. We would play with paper dolls on the front porch, we’d go outside, we’d roller skate, jump rope, ride our bicycles. There were quite a few kids in the neighborhood.”
Although their immediate family was small, their extended family was truly extensive.
Cay attended St. Joseph’s Elementary School and Sharon High School. During her senior year she started dating Bill Mack. Then Cay went to college at New Rochelle, NY, and Bill became a cadet at the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy in Philadelphia.
“New York and Philadelphia were so close. I’d watch the New York Times for the ship arrivals and departures, and when the ships came in, I knew he’d be there that weekend. We had a wonderful life there.”
During the summer after her Sophomore year, Cay worked in her father’s Meadville office. In August Bill came home on leave to visit her.
“We were walking through this little park in Meadville. All of a sudden there were whistles, sirens, church bells, cars honking. I thought some tragedy had happened. It was August 15th . The war was over. Women came running from four corners of that park. I don’t know how they got there so fast. Bill was the only man I saw that day in uniform. He was their symbol.”
June 1947 was a critical month for Cay. She graduated from New Rochelle on the 2nd; she got married on the 14th; and her father died on the 30th.
Their first child, William E. Jr., was born in 1948, followed by Patricia Lynn (1950), Carol Lee (1952), Kevin David (1954), Mary Catherine (1958), Margaret Elaine (1961), Maureen Ellen (1963), and Christine Marie (1964).
“I loved having such a large family. My mother, God rest her soul, she was sure I cooked for the U.S. Army. There was always a pot of something on the stove – stew, chili, whatever. My mother would say, ‘Catherine, are you sure you’re not taking in laundry from the neighbors?’”
Cay did not work outside the home for 27 years so she could raise her family as she was raised.
“When I was a kid, I hated the rules at my house. I used to mutter to myself, ‘It’s their New England heritage, that’s why they’re so strict. My kids are never going to live under these rules.’ Well, my children did. Under the very same rules, which they hated. Now my grandchildren live under those. They all turned out good, so they must have been good rules after all.”
When her children were grown, Cay decided to work outside the home. First she worked with Welcome Wagon organizing parties for engaged girls, then as a secretary at Protected Life. Someone suggested she could do better if she took advantage of a program under CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). That led to a job as Executive Secretary of the Mercer County Drug Council, working at the old Art Wishart house.
“We had twelve residents, all boys, 14 to 18, juveniles. Some of them were the nicest kids I ever met, but they had gotten into trouble.”
After that Cay worked for Tom Flynn at Hillcrest Memorial Park. That was during the Iranian hostage crisis, when they were raising one flag for every day the hostages were held.
“One day Tom said to me, ‘I am so frustrated. Fifty-two of our people are being held over there, and nobody seems to care. It’s hid in the back pages. I think we should do something.”
Cay called the State Department and learned that one of the hostages, Michael Matrinko, was from Scranton. At Tom’s request, she called the Matrinkos and invited them to come to Hermitage to raise the 100th flag.
But that wasn’t enough for Tom. As the crisis went on, Alice Matrinko called to say she was getting very discouraged.
“Tom decided we’ve got to show them we really care. He said, ‘We’ve got to walk to Scranton.’ I said, ‘Who’s this we?’ It was the end of February, mid-winter, and he wanted to walk through the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania, half-way to Boston.”
Reluctantly, Cay agreed to go. She bought a navy sweatshirt with “USA” printed on the front.
“So I became a symbol. All three networks were covering us. The cameras would zoom in on my chest. Tom said, ‘Next to Bo Derek, you have the most famous chest in America.’ I walked about six miles a day. But I tell you, I never felt better in my life.”
They walked to Scranton, then to Harrisburg, and on to Washington, DC, where they were invited to the White House and attended a special service at the National Cathedral.
The walk took up the whole month of March, 1980. Cay left Hillcrest Gardens not long after that to do marketing and public relations for the Shenango Inn.
“During the 1940s, Dad and a lot of other businessmen saw the need for a nice hotel, so they sold shares of stock and built the Shenango Inn as a community hotel. I think it opened debt-free, if I’m not mistaken. My Dad didn’t live to see it finished. I started working there in the early 1980s, after Jim Winner bought it.”
When Winner bought Tara in 1985, Cay went to work there until she retired in 1991.
“I brought motor coaches in. Sometimes I would have fifty or sixty in. I learned how to turn my hoops and crinolines sideways to get on the coach like a lady and greet them. I don’t have a southern bone in my body. I’m strictly New England, but I loved being a southern belle.”
Her husband Bill died of cancer in 1992. Now the only one living at home with her is John, the son of her cousin Ursula.
“Ursula was married before I was born. I idolized her. When they were growing old, they worried about John, who is mentally challenged. They asked us if we would take care of him after they died. He has been with us since 1991.”
Since retiring, Cay has continued to do volunteer work with many community organizations. Through the years, she has served with the Mercer County Tourism Agency Board of Directors, American Cancer Society, Newman Circle, Sharon Regional Auxiliary, Friends of Buhl Henderson Library, and the American Heart Association.
She has also been traveling and enjoying her family. “I have 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. I love it. I feel like a dynasty sometimes.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008