She grew up in a cold-water flat in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a building her grandmother had purchased to provide for her extended family after her own husband was killed in a freak construction accident. Soon home to aunts and uncles and cousins, that old building, a stone's throw from Eastern Parkway, had a dumbwaiter — a small elevator lift used to transport goods to the separate apartments, floor-to-floor.
As her daughter told it this week, Florence Lisanti, then Florence DeSena, would secret herself in that dumbwaiter as a child and travel to each floor, scouting out which relatives had the best dinner on tap for any given night. "So," Geri Lisanti-Levy said, "my mother could then make sure she could get invited to the dinner she'd like best."
That, Lisanti-Levy said, was the essence of what made her mother her mom: See a problem, define a problem, devise a solution to a problem, fix the problem. It was thinking that served Florence Lisanti well throughout her life, first as a schoolgirl at old Bishop McDonnell High School (now, Bishop Loughlin), then as a wife and mother of three girls and later as a PTA president, a village trustee, deputy mayor and village historian in service to her beloved New Hyde Park.
Lisanti died at the Harbor House Assisted Living center in Oyster Bay on June 26 after a near-decade long battle with dementia, her daughter Geri said. She was 91.
"One of my friends once said, 'You know, your mother is like a frickin' force of nature," Lisanti-Levy of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, said this week. "She was just one of those people who know themselves … who had pretty much figured out that if she'd reasoned a situation out she had the right answer." Lisanti-Levy said she'd come to understand her mother best watching her one time deal with fellow trustees in New Hyde Park, where she was the first-ever woman to serve. "I observed her at town meetings and it would be her and the old boys' club and then I realized she'd run the old boys' club. I said, 'How did you do that?' She said, 'I just make it seem like it's their idea.' Her belief was that you always need to make someone feel good about making the decision you want them to make.
"She was a problem solver. That's what she did. She solved problems."
Born Nov. 4, 1927, Florence Lisanti was a child of the Depression, a coming-of-age teen of World War II. Her grandfather died young, killed when a horse reared up at the construction company he owned — crushing him. Her grandmother took the insurance settlement, bought the multifamily flat in Crown Heights, gathered her extended family under one roof and made sure they were provided with safe shelter. It was that strength — and, that sensibility — that Lisanti-Levy said her own mother came to embrace.
"My mother was extraordinarily outgoing," Lisanti-Levy said. "She just had great instincts about people, was upfront about what she was thinking and feeling."
In fact, Lisanti-Levy said, it was that very nature that led her mother to meet her father, Gerald Lisanti.
This was just after World War II, where Jerry Lisanti had served as an Army infantryman on the D-Day beach at Normandy, as well as in the epic Battle of the Bulge. There was a canteen in Elmhurst, a place where servicemen could meet and mingle, and, as her daughter told it, Florence spotted Jerry on line for a drink of water. "She's behind him at the water fountain and she thinks to herself, 'He looks cute, I think I'll bump into him,' " Lisanti-Levy said. "So, she literally bumps into him."
Jerry Lisanti ended up getting wet. Florence DeSena ended up giving him her phone number.
A short time later, Jerry called Florence. "He said, 'Listen, would you like to go out?'" Lisanti-Levy said. "When she said, 'Yes,' he said, 'Good. My brother Frank needs a date.' "
Florence went out on a date with Frank Lisanti. No chemistry. But, Gerald Lisanti eventually decided to dump his then-girlfriend to date Florence. They clicked, and on Oct. 9, 1948, they were married at Our Lady of Lourdes in Queens Village, Queens.
Jerry worked as an electrical engineer and then as a project manager for a company called Airborne Instruments, Lisanti-Levy said. The couple settled in a house on Lincoln Avenue in New Hyde Park and Florence became a housewife and mother to three girls: Diane, Geri and Laura. Years later, Jerry left Airborne and became a teacher at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park. Once the girls were old enough, Florence made the decision to dedicate herself to public service.
It began, Lisanti-Levy said, with a battle over noise abatement regarding rerouted inclement weather flights into Kennedy Airport, then known as Idlewild. She helped get the flight pattern changed, Lisanti-Levy said.
She went on to serve as president of the PTA at Hillside Grade School, New Hyde Park Memorial and the Nassau County PTA Council. She also became the first woman elected a village trustee in New Hyde Park, where, in her second term, she also served as deputy mayor. As town historian, she helped preserve village history through historical photos, videos and news clippings. She started the village street fair in 1995. Her term as president of the Chamber of Commerce resulted in the award for outstanding citizenship being named for her, while her work with the PTA earned a lifetime achievement award. She was North Hempstead Town Woman of the Year in 2000 and was awarded 7th Senatorial District Woman of Distinction honors in 2010.
""Florence loved New Hyde Park and worked very hard to always make it 'a great place to live,' " current New Hyde Park Mayor Lawrence J. Montreuil wrote in an June 29 open letter to residents about her passing. "She was actively involved in running the village and often could be found at Village Hall, lending a sympathetic ear to her neighbor's concerns. Florence researched the origins of New Hyde Park and enlightened so many of us on how this village on the plains came to be. She helped us develop a greater sense of pride in our town, so we would take better care of it."
Daughter Diane Lisanti of Midwood recalled many trips and treks taken with her mom: to Saratoga Springs to watch sister Geri sing with the Philharmonic; to Vermont and Tennessee. She recalled her mom coming to her graduation at Gallaudet University, the renowned school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. "Her favorite trips, however," Diane wrote in a note about her mom, "were to the outlet stores (she loved to find bargains!), as well as visiting family."
Florence Lisanti was memorialized with a Mass of Christian Burial on July 2 at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church in New Hyde Park, with interment at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury. She is survived by daughter Diane, Geri and her husband, Richard Levy, of Brighton Beach, Laura and her husband, Jeff Yohe, of Mufreesboro, Tennessee, and grandchildren Alessandra and Paul Levy and Joshua and Andrea Yohe. Her husband of 42 years, Jerry, predeceased her in 1991.
"My parents could not have been two more different people," Geri Lisanti-Levy said. "My dad was scientific, very logical, and would step back from a situation and view it before he would move forward, while people would talk about my mom's zest. … But, they were good for each other, perfect for each other. He was like her anchor and she was like his freedom. They just got each other.
"My mother was extremely warm and made immediate connections with people," Lisanti-Levy said. "She was such a social being and just knew how to make you feel comfortable. She once said: 'I just really love New Hyde Park. I love making my town better.' I'm just so happy she was my mom. I think we all were."
Correction: Florence Lisanti's grandaughter Alessandra's name was misspelled in an earlier version of the story.