West Middlesex, PA
Living with attitude
“Oh, what a life. I’ve had a good life,” said Clara (Venditti) Mansel, who will be 97 on December 8.
She has lived to see the arrival of three great-great-grandchildren. But that’s just an indication that she is living a long life. It’s been a good life because she has always lived it with attitude – not the negative in-your-face aggressiveness extolled by some young people today, but its exact opposite: the old-fashioned kind that generates a positive response to whatever happens to you.
On her front door, Clara keeps a statement by Charles Swindoll about attitude. It says, in part, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” The most important thing, he says, is that we can choose how to react. Clara sums it up a little differently: “You have to be happy with what you’ve got.”
To Clara, being happy with what you’ve got doesn’t mean passively accepting it, but doing whatever you can do to make the most of it. She has done that all of her life.
She probably learned this from her parents, Nicholas and Cherubina Venditti, who came from Italy about three years before Clara was born.
“They came because there were a lot of crazy things going on in the Catholic Church in Italy,” Clara said. “That was the biggest reason they wanted to move out of Italy.”
At that time, it wasn’t practical to be a non-Catholic in Italy. So they came to Youngstown and joined the Presbyterian Church. They moved to Hubbard when Clara was four because they wanted more land – maybe to have more space for their fourteen children.
Clara attended the one-room Beech School for grades one through eight, then went to Hubbard High School. She was very athletic. She loved to ride horses and go hunting. She played soccer, and was on the senior girls’ basketball team in high school.
“I was a real tomboy,” she said.
From age 15 until she graduated in 1928, she kept the books for her uncle at the Youngstown Auto Body Paint Shop.
“We had no adding machine, no typewriter, so I had to use my head,” she said. “There were nine men and my uncle, and I enjoyed it very much. When I was a sophomore, junior, and senior, I also worked at Gosnell’s Bakery for two hours after school, and for a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I got 25 cents an hour. That seemed like a million dollars in those days.”
At church she met Michael Mansel, who was a couple of years older than her. They were married on February 11, 1929. It was a quiet ceremony in the minister’s house because they didn’t have the money for a big wedding.
Michael and his father had farms in Shenango Township, near the state line.
“When I was first married, I helped with the milking, helped hauled the hay out of the fields on horse-drawn wagons, and did other things I never expected,” Clara said. “While we had cows we sold part of the milk and kept some to make cheese, butter, and ricotta, which we sold for a little more money to live on. We lived on $30 a month. We milked about 25 cows, and we would butcher one a year. We raised our own chickens and had our own eggs.”
While working on the farm, Michael learned to be a blacksmith.
“He built his own forge at home,” Clara said. “He helped the farmers, if they wanted anything fixed. Mike would never charge the full amount. If they gave him a quarter for a dollar job, he was happy. He helped with the machinery when it would break.”
Although they never made a lot of money farming, Clara was happy with her life.
“I wasn’t a spendthrift,” she said. “If we earned a dollar, I put 10 or 15 cents away. I lived good. I wasn’t a fancy person. I didn’t want everything everybody else had. I just enjoyed what I had and what I could do.”
The Mansels had five children: Leonard, Esther, James, David, Denise Alane. All of them except Denise were born at home. They also raised Clara’s sister Thora Fay for more than four years.
Clara thoroughly enjoyed her role as mother. When the kids were attending their one-room school, she and some of the other mothers created their own “hot lunch” program.
“I would cook a meal of some sort – a pot of soup or something – and take it to school for all the kids. We’d wait until they got through, then we’d take our utensils home. We treated them two days a week.”
She not only took care of her own children, but also helped out with the neighbors’ kids. “I became doctor, barber, baby sitter, and I often played baseball with the kids, both boys and girls.”
After about 15 or 20 years, Michael quit farming and started working at General American as a welder. Without any cows to milk, Clara had time to get involved with many community services. She was a 4-H leader for 25 years, served about 30 years as Majority Inspector for elections in the Shenango Township building, taught Sunday School and after-hours Bible study at the West Middlesex schools, and lectured at the Shenango Township Grange for many years. Along with a friend, Josephine Nauman, she started the first PTA in the West Middlesex district, at Wet Track and Elliott Schools.
It wasn’t always easy, but Clara’s attitude always kept her going. One year she broke her hip on Memorial Day, and had knee surgery about four weeks before election day. Everyone would have understood if she had stayed home, but that thought never even crossed her mind.
“Well, it was a job, and I had to go,” she said.
When the Farrell Hospital was being built in 1960, Clara volunteered for an important job.
“I set up the lobby shop with the help of many friends and doctors’ wives,” she said.
About the same time, she was the first president of a committee to build a community swimming pool in West Middlesex.
“They said, ‘Clara, you talk better than all of us.’ I could talk people into doing anything, I guess.”
The Mansels mixed a lot of fun in with the work.
“Mike and I loved to dance,” she said. “We loved to square dance, waltz, polka, and two-step. We never missed going to the Saturday night dances at the Shenango Township Grange.”
In 1949, Clara started hosting annual family reunions. More than 100 family members attended the largest one.
After Mike retired from General American, he and Clara loved to travel. They took many trips by bus, including a month-long trip on Greyhound that went through 12 or 15 states.
“Mike made friends wherever we went, especially if there were children on the bus,” Clara said. “When the bus would stop for something to eat, he would say to a mother, ‘You look tired. I’ll take care of your little boy while you eat.’ Once there was a Mexican mother with a little boy. Mike took over for the whole time we were eating.”
With a son living in California and a daughter in Vermont, they also took longer trips by plane.
“Mike and I both loved winter sports,” she said. “My children and grandchildren skied and played hockey. My grandchildren started when they were four years old. We always tried to make it to their big games.”
Mike passed away from cancer in 1990.
“We were together for 63 years,” she said. “He was a really good husband, a real softy. He loved everyone.”
Clara’s attitude toward life remains unchanged to this day. Her children have invited her to live with them, but Clara is content in her own little apartment on the fifth floor or an apartment building. And she continues to help others whenever she can.
“I cooked for four or five people up here,” she says, “for people who couldn’t do it themselves. I’d cook a lot of soup, and take a bowl to each one of them.”
Her attitude also enables her to do things for herself that wouldn’t occur to others.
“See these windows, how high they are?” she said. “I had to make a way to clean them. So I bought a mop and cut it down a little. I spray the window, and use that mop to clean the window. You do what you need to do to make things easier. That’s what I always did, all of my life.”
Clara has been recognized several times for the work she has done. In 1991, she received a certificate from the City of Hubbard for contributing “greatly to the advancement of this community.” In 2006, she was named Woman of the Year by the First Presbyterian Church in Hubbard, which she attended nearly all of her life.
It’s not those kinds of public acknowledgements that give Clara the most joy. It’s the knowledge that her attitude has enabled her to make the most of life for herself, her family, and her community.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008
Clara passed away on March 6, 2011.