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People Top 5
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- July 30, 1984
- Vol. 22
- No. 5
The Making of a Trailblazer
A Winner's Nature and a Plucky Mother Set Geraldine Ferraro on the High Road to History
At the mike Ferraro said, "American history is about doors being opened, doors of opportunity for everyone, no matter who you are as long as you're willing to earn it."
As warm, brainy and beautifully boned as she is, Geraldine Ferraro, 48, has never hung around waiting for doors to be opened. She has been shouldering through them for years, with the backing of her-mother Antonetta Corrieri Ferraro, 78, the tiny (4'11"), tough-minded daughter of Italian immigrants. Antonetta shaped her daughter in the ways of both power and grace, and was blessed by a daughter who met her more than halfway.
Part of Gerry's formation was a background of family tragedy that began before she was born. Antonetta Corrieri was raised in Manhattan, where her parents worked as a street cleaner and a dressmaker; she was the seventh of 10 children. She married the upwardly mobile Dominick Ferraro at 20. She bore twins, Carl and Anthony, but Anthony died at 3 days. A third child, Gerard, was killed in an auto accident at 3 years. The couple's only daughter, Geraldine, was born two years later and named for Gerard. In Newburgh, N.Y., up the Hudson River from Manhattan, Dominick Ferraro owned both the Roxy restaurant and the Mill St. 5& 10. The marriage Geraldine grew up observing was bonded by mutual devotion, says Antonetta: "In everything, I always came first—before mother, father, brother—I was it. If I wanted to change the furniture, it was changed. Nothing was too good."
Ferraro's daughter "was his princess," continues Antonetta. "He bought her a birthday cake every month and dolls wherever he went. She had 98, 100 dolls, a dollhouse with electric lights and Gerry had a big pink room with bay windows." Baby Gerry never learned to crawl "because I never put her on the floor. She walked at 8 months and said words at about 9 months, because I would walk with her in my arms in the morning, saying 'Good morning, refrigerator, good morning, stove.' "
An active child ("you had to control her"), Gerry started dancing lessons at 3. She learned to swim at 4. "I wouldn't let her in the big pool until she learned to swim." That year Gerry entered all day prekindergarten at Newburgh's Mount St. Mary's, but, says her mother, "I taught her everything at home. She knew how to count, she knew how to spell."
When Gerry was 8, her father died after being stricken by a heart attack while driving home. Antonetta remembers telling her daughter. "She woke up about 7 a.m., so I said to her, 'Honey, I got to tell you something.' And she said, 'Why is Daddy so still?' and I said, 'He's gone to heaven.' She looked at me, hugged me, and I said to myself, 'How do you tell a child you have no father?' " While her older brother, Carl, "cried and cried," Gerry concealed her sorrow but came down with anemia and stayed out of school for a year. Her loss haunted her at school the next Father's Day and she was in tears. "I have no daddy," she said. "Yes, you have," Antonetta consoled the girl. "You have him all the time. He's in heaven, he watches over you.' "
During that year Antonetta invested and lost what was left of her husband's money. As the family's fortunes dwindled, they moved from the spacious house in Newburgh to the Bronx and then to a $65-a-month two-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y. Antonetta found work at $2.50 an hour as a crochet beader, hooking beads and sequins onto fancy dresses, and sent her daughter to boarding school because she wanted her to be safe.
Gerry was 13 when her mother took her to the sewing workshop and taught her to sew on sequins. "She learned quick," Antonetta says, "but I didn't want her to learn. I said, 'Gerry, you better go to school and study.' I left school after the eighth grade and wanted an education so bad I could taste it. I always said, if I have to scrub floors, my children are going to have what I never did have, an education."
At Marymount School in Tarrytown, Gerry was a member of the honor society, the debating club, the French club and president of the literary society. She played field hockey, basketball, softball and swam, and was, of course, named most likely to succeed. Ferraro considers those days a kind of beginning of her adult energy. "When I was a kid," she once said, "my mother wanted me to have everything every other kid had, and she couldn't afford to. So what do you do? Do you walk around and say 'I want, I want, I want?' Or do you make do? Maybe the reason I got where I am today is that in school, in my work, in Congress, I worked harder than anybody else. I worked on every school yearbook and newspaper. I got high marks."
Gerry won a college scholarship to Marymount Manhattan, then taught elementary school in Queens "because that's what women were supposed to do." But she needed an outlet for her ambition. Steady date John Zaccaro suggested law school. "She came home one day, and said, 'Mom, I'd like to go to law school. Do you think we can afford it?' So I said, 'Look Gerry, if you want to go, we'll afford it.' " Mother and daughter pitched in for tuition, and Gerry went to Fordham at night and taught school by day. When she was paid for her first case some years later, she mailed a check to her mother with a note that said, "Mom, this is half of my fee. It's about time I stopped taking and started giving."
During her school years she did all her mother's ironing. "Such a perfectionist. She'd iron a shirt, you'd think it was done by a professional tailor. Once a month she cleaned all my windows. She cut and set my hair. She was something."
Right after she graduated from law school in 1960, Gerry married John Zaccaro, but kept her maiden name professionally in honor of all her mother had done and to honor her with all she had yet to do. She bore three children in four years, stayed home, working part-time, until the youngest was in second grade, and then sought a full-time job outside the home. She doesn't call it going back to work. "Raising three small children," she says, "that's work!"
Today, the vice-presidential nominee and her mother live seven minutes apart by car in Queens. Most Sundays Gerry picks up Antonetta and her mother-in-law for a dinner out or a barbecue in the backyard. Gerry makes the vegetables and the dessert. She phones her mother every day. "I say what's on, and Gerry tells me, and I get tired just listening to her," Antonetta says. The mother is more than just a past power in her daughter's life. "I have a secret," Gerry once revealed. "My mother makes novenas. I say, 'This is what I'm doing, could you say a prayer?' She not only prays I will get exactly what I want, but when I get it, she also makes novenas thanking God."
On her first campaign day, Monday's new running mate questioned President Reagan's sincerity as a Christian. Ferraro amplified and softened that remark later but made clear that she would brook no debate over her own faith. "I think I'm a good Catholic," she said. "My husband, my children and I are churchgoing Catholics. We feel very strongly about our religion. But not just to talk about it. I think we have shown in our lives that we care for people."
Antonetta Ferraro watched Walter Mondale announce his historic choice in her Forest Hills apartment on two televisions, listening to the radio all the time. Minutes later the phone rang, and an excited lady calling from St. Paul, Minn. asked, "Mom, how did I do?" At home in her pink housecoat, her heart thumping wildly, Antonetta Ferraro said: "Just fine." Whether or not her daughter makes it to Vice-President, there is certain victory for Antonetta Ferraro. On dreams, faith and energy alone she has been the link between her father, an immigrant street cleaner, and a daughter who stands only an election away from this nation's Vice-Presidency.
- Mary Vespa.
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