At her 104th birthday party, Emma DiGiorgio sat in a corner of the restaurant where her family had gathered, sipping a Presbyterian and fingering an unopened birthday card that sat on her plate.
“Delicious,” she said after a sip, and her daughter and grandson laughed.
She’s not a boozer, grandson Tommy Verrigni insists. But she likes her scotch and the occasional cigarette, too. She earned them, he says.
She spent a lifetime working from 5:30 a.m. to midnight at her store, Emma’s Newsroom, near the top of the Broadway hill in Schenectady. She’d wake up at 4 a.m. to make sure first-shift General Electric workers got their newspapers, coffee and sandwiches on their morning walk to work. She’d stop by the plant mid-day to drop off some sandwiches for the men who pulled long shifts. She’d stay up late, keeping her store open so mischievous boys would come in off the street, buy a Coke, read a comic, play pinball.
“I worked hard,” Emma said, emphatically and with a proud nod of her head.
That’s how she’s still alive, she says. Hard work. What else?
“Go slow,” Verrigni said. “That was her big thing. She’d always say, go, but go slow. Go easy. Take your time. She was always one to sit down at the dinner table. Relax. Enjoy your meal. She believed in hard work, but she’d always say to take it slow. Go slow, but always go.”
More than a dozen family members joined DiGiorgio at the Water’s Edge Lighthouse in Glenville Wednesday for the big birthday celebration. Owner Pat Popolizio invited her last year to come celebrate her next birthday at his restaurant with the whole family for free. He had seen her there a few times over the years, he said, and was always impressed with her attitude.
“She’s very low key,” he said. “She’s 104, and she deserves to be 104, you know? She is a very, very nice person, and sharper than some people who are 50 years old. She’s just got a positive attitude. And I think attitude has a lot to do with longevity. It must.”
Her family agrees. You’ll never hear DiGiorgio say an unkind word, they said. She believes in hard work, and she believes in extending kindness to those in her community.
DiGiorgio currently resides at the Capital Living nursing home in Rotterdam. She has two children and about a dozen grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Born April 11, 1911 in Schenectady, DiGiorgio started working at a young age. At 15, she got a job in the mailroom at GE. At 20, she married. At 26, her father gave her a business, a little store on the hill at 1427 Broadway. It was Emma’s Newsroom by day and DiGiorgio’s Pizzeria by night. She sold all the local and New York papers, lots of coffee and sandwiches. After lunch, her husband would start up the pizzeria operation and she’d help him cook.
“I liked it,” she said. “You couldn’t get me out of there.”
The neighborhood kids didn’t make her job easy. She’d do whatever she could to lure them into the store at night in an attempt to keep them off the streets and out of trouble.
“A couple times they locked her out of the store and raided the candy,” recalled Marlene Verrigni. “They drove her crazy, but she let them stay.”
When those same boys were drafted into the war, they wrote her letters, dozens and dozens of letters that Verrigni still has tucked away in a box somewhere.
“They loved her,” she said. “She kept them off the street growing up. These teenage boys ended up going to war and writing her from all over the world. How’s Marlene doing, they’d ask, because they used to pick me up and put me on the Coke machine when I was just a kid. I got a box full of their letters. Some of them didn’t come back.”
The family matriarch always gave more than she took, Tommy Verrigni said.
“She was kind,” he said. “Bums would come into her store and she’d feed them. She didn’t want money. Somebody would come in and be down and out and she’d give stuff away and say, ‘That’s a poor soul.’ She would never turn anybody away.”
DiGiorgio also believed in hobbies and travel, music and dance.
She started bowling at 16 and kept going until she was 85. She was inducted into the Schenectady-Scotia Women’s Bowling Association’s Hall of Fame in 1988.
Her team has won at least two state championships and competed in the nationals. She traveled all over the country for the sport and encouraged her kids and grandkids to do the same for their own passions.
“She’d always say, ‘Tommy, travel,’ ” recalled Verrigni, drummer in the Tommy Verrigni Trio. “I play every first Thursday at the Stockade Inn and she comes out and always supports me, to this day. She says, ‘Play your music. Enjoy it. But go, do it.’ ”