Plain and simple world traveler
There could hardly be a plainer and simpler name than “Mary White.” And most of the time it was perfectly appropriate for the Hermitage lady who bears that name. She grew up in Farrell, got a job after high school and stayed with it for 35 years, got married but had no children, and lived alone in an apartment ever since her husband passed away 26 years ago.
On the surface, it might appear that she led a plain and simple life. And for 50 weeks out of the every year, it might have been. But those other two weeks of many years more than made up for any of the boredom she may have felt during the rest of the year.
Mary was born in Farrell on May 5, 1921, the first daughter of Romanian immigrants Peter and Elena Lazar. There were three sons before her – John, Sylvester, and Lontine.
“We lived on Florida Street,” Mary said. “There were lots of kids there, and we had lots of fun around our houses and our yards. We used to go sled riding down Florida Street.”
Her father worked at Sharon Steel until he was laid off during the Depression. Then he went to work in a coal mine in West Virginia while the family stayed in Farrell.
“I remember we went to visit him once,” Mary said. “I was just a kid. There were many snakes there. Once when we saw one, my brother Lontine snatched me up and ran away from it. Then he and a friend went back and killed it. But he made sure I was safe first.”
When a job came available at Carnegie Steel, Peter Lazar rejoined his family in Farrell.
After Mary graduated from high school, she got a job at Myer Frank Furniture Store.
“We were a lot of young people working there. We would have parties and picnics. The store didn’t organize them for us. We did it on our own, because we liked to have fun.”
A co-worker introduced Mary to her brother, Eugene White. They were married on February 1, 1945, after Eugene returned from military service.
For a while Eugene worked at Westinghouse. From 1952 to 1964, he served as an alderman in Farrell.
“Everyone called him Judgie because of his job,” Mary said.
After that he worked for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, first as inspector of labor and industry, then as chief inheritance tax appraiser for Mercer County. Mary continued to work at Myer Frank for 35 years until she retired.
In the early 1970s, the Whites decided to build a new house. They sold their beautiful Farrell home and moved into an apartment in Hermitage. But before they could even start their new house, Eugene was struck with cancer. He passed away in 1980. The apartment that was meant to be temporary accommodations has been Mary’s home ever since.
So what do you think? It was a plain and simple, humdrum life? Not a chance. That quiet little lady you might have met in Myer Frank Furniture Store has experienced more exotic places around the world than you could ever imagine – not in movies or on TV, but in real life. She has explored Dracula’s castle, hiked up the Acropolis, tanned on beaches in Tahiti and the Bahamas, lounged on the deck of a Scandinavian cruise ship, tossed coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, flew in a helicopter over the churning waters of a South American river, joined hands with native dancers in Africa, and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace – to name just a few of her adventures.
It all started in the 1960s when she got to know Florence Elia, who went to her church, Our Lady of Fatima in Farrell.
“One day she said to me, ‘Mary, how about let’s go to Greece?’ I asked why. She said, ‘Oh come on, let’s go! So I said okay.”
There was only one problem. Mary had never flown before, and was afraid to get on a plane. Her husband encouraged her.
“He took me to the airport before I went to see how the planes take off an land, so I wouldn’t be so scared. He was sorry he couldn’t go, but he wouldn’t get on a plane at all!”
So she built up the courage and boarded the plane for that first trip in spite of her fear.
“The fellow came around and asked us if we wanted something to drink. I said give me something strong. He brought me some whiskey or whatever it was. After that I was okay. Florence said, ‘I never saw you take a drink.’ I told her I wanted to relax.”
That first year Florence planned the whole trip herself, and arranged for their travel and accommodations. From then on, for the next 25 years or so, Florence would think of places to go, and the two of them would go with a tour group.
“I would never know where we were going,” Mary said. “She would surprise me.”
Florence did all the planning, but Mary had her own vital role in making sure the trips would come off as planned.
“Florence’s husband didn’t like her traveling. Every time we were going I had to call him and tell him that I wanted to go to a certain place, and that I wanted Florence to come with me. He couldn’t say no to me!”
Although the tours were planned and guided to make sure the travelers saw the most important sights in each country, there was room for surprises.
“In Japan there was a wedding across the street from our hotel, so we went out to see it. The father of the bride came over to us and invited us in. We watched the wedding ceremony, but we didn’t stay after that. We went to China, too, but the people there weren’t as friendly as the Japanese.”
One of Mary’s favorite trips was to Romania, the land of her ancestors.
“We had always spoken Romanian at home when I was growing up because my mother wouldn’t speak American. So the people there would come up and talk with me and ask me about America. They were so happy to see me because I was Romanian.”
Mary discovered that the people there didn’t have the freedom that we take for granted in the United States. She wanted to visit a cousin, but the Communist government wouldn’t let her travel away from the tour group.
“My brother was with us, and if he tried to give a gift to a child, the government officials would take it from him. So he would put some money in the palm of his hand and shake hands with a kid so the kid could have it. Can you imagine that? The government would take presents away from the children.”
Mary was even more shocked in Africa.
“In one place there were all these tall and thin women inside a fence. They weren’t allowed to go out of it. The men would go and get the food and bring it back to them.”
While on a safari, their tour group was warned not to throw anything out of the car.
“One girl threw out a banana peel. The driver got really mad because all the animals came running over.”
You would think that Mary would have experienced a lot of scary moments during her travels. She remembers a few, but not any really dangerous ones.
“In Africa we were sleeping under mosquito netting. I woke Florence up and said, ‘there’s something moving up there on top of the net.’ It turned out to be a piece of straw!”
The odysseys continued until Florence passed away in 1996. During their years of travel, Florence and Mary visited more than 40 countries, spread across every continent except Antarctica. Not bad for two plain and simple ladies from the Shenango Valley.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007