TODAY'S PAPER
40° Good Morning
40° Good Morning
Long IslandObituaries

Mary Leo, WWII orphan and West Islip businesswoman, dies at 86

Mary Leo, of West Islip, died of pneumonia

Mary Leo, of West Islip, died of pneumonia on Dec. 1. Credit: Leo Family

Her life had been irrevocably altered in a hairbreadth of time: one minute, the youngest of 11 children born to two loving parents; the next, a 10-year-old orphan whose parents had been killed before her eyes by a bomb dropped during the 1943 liberation of war-torn Sicily.

As Mary Leo later told it, in that tragic moment one big door would close forever on the world as she'd known it, while another would open to a world she could never have envisioned.

She even turned it all into a small book about her simple but extraordinary life not long before she died of pneumonia Dec. 1 at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, a stone's throw from where she'd spent most of her adult life — marrying, raising a family, running a successful business.

"My mother was the American dream," Patty Slawson, one of three children of Mary and Vincent Leo, said this week. "What people come to this country to strive for, she lived it. Forget that she and my father didn't have two nickels to rub together, they didn't have two pennies. She didn't speak any English when she met my father; he didn't speak any Italian. Yet she came to this country, became a citizen, built a business, built a life."

"It's an incredible story," Andy Slawson, Patty's husband and a longtime Newsday sports department employee, said. "My mother-in-law, the life she lived. This woman, if I tell you, she went through everything. It's really amazing."

Maria delGiorno was born May 1, 1933, in Milazzo, a small town on the northern coast of Sicily just north of Mount Etna and just west of Messina.

In summer 1943, war was raging in Europe, the Germans on the defensive in occupied Italy and Sicily. Fresh off victory in North Africa, that July the Allies launched the Invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky, and by early August U.S. Gen. George Patton and U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley were racing British Gen. Bernard (Monty) Montgomery to Messina to seal the deal before heading to mainland Italy.

In Milazzo, bombs and other ordinance had been falling, day and night, for more than two weeks by early August, as U.S. Army Air Force B-25, B-26 and A-20 bombers and P-40 and P-38 fighters, joined often by British Royal Air Force Lancasters, Wellingtons, Baltimores, Beaufighters, Spitfires and Kittyhawks, launched attack after attack on the town and its prime harbor.

Maria's father, Antonio delGiorno, much older than his wife Maria Rosa delGiorno, had been a police chief in mainland Italy, around Naples. The family had a second home, equipped with a bomb shelter, in Capo Milazzo, an area located on a narrow isthmus north of the main town. On Aug. 8, 1943 the family was huddled in that shelter and when the bombing stopped, Antonio opened the shelter door, stepping out into the yard.

Just then, Patty Slawson said her mother told her, one last bomb went off. Antonio was killed instantly. Maria, who held her youngest daughter in her arms, was struck in the throat by shrapnel, falling back into the shelter on top of little Maria, bleeding out on the girl.

Suddenly orphaned, Maria, later known as Mary, spent much of the next 10 or so years living with various family members, even living briefly in an orphanage, before becoming engaged to a young man in Rome.

Then fate again intervened.

Vincent Leo, who grew up in North Babylon, was in the Army and on leave headed to Milazzo to visit relatives when he spotted Mary on a train in summer 1954. As Patty recalled it, Vincent thought Mary beautiful but didn't approach her.

Then, days later at a town gathering, Vincent was introduced to Mary.Though he didn't speak Italian and Mary didn't speak English, three days later Vincent told Mary he was going to marry her.

Mary, who had come to Milazzo to borrow her sister's wedding dress to wear to her own nuptials, called off her engagement to the guy in Rome — and, a year later, married Vincent Leo.

"She wrote a real Dear John letter," Patty Slawson said, "in this case, literally, since the guy's name was Giovanni." 

Then Mary and Vincent were off to Long Island, first living with his family in North Babylon, then renting an apartment in Huntington, before they bought a house in West Islip. There, they raised their family — daughters Patty and Diana and son, Tony, starting their own sheet metal manufacturing company in Copiague in 1967, turning it into a successful homegrown business. En route, Mary learned English, became a U.S. citizen, and mastered finances, investing in the stock market and, Patty said, buying a $25 savings bond each week.

Her son-in-law Andy said his mother-in-law became such a good cook that dozens of friends even tried to get her to open a restaurant, though she declined. 

Eventually, Mary and Vincent were so successful they were able to travel extensively, taking trips to Italy and to Hawaii, and taking 22 cruises.

Following two strokes in 2016 and 2017, Mary decided to write a small book called "The One-Minute Journey, A Twist of Fate," with Suffolk County Community College professor William G. O'Connell. World champion swimmer Gregory Jagenburg called it "a magnificent time piece" and the book site on Amazon describes it as a "powerful and gripping true story of perseverance, success," and of "human determination and (the) will to survive." 

Mary Leo is survived by Vincent Leo, her husband of 64 years; Patty and Andrew Slawson of East Islip and their son, Andrew; daughter Diana and John Tzortzinakis of Islip Terrace and her children, Anthony and Gina; and son Tony and Cathy Leo of Islip Terrace and their children, Deanna, Samantha and Michelle; and one great-grandchild. The funeral service is 10:30 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church in West Islip.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the American Stroke Foundation at americanstroke.org.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News