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Longtime Yankees fan, mother, high school athlete dies at 97

Rose Anzillatto Messina died of natural causes on

Rose Anzillatto Messina died of natural causes on Aug. 10 at her son's home in Hauppauge with her family around her. She was 97. She is shown here in 2004 wearing her Derek Jeter jersey. Credit: Christopher Messina

Greatness lies within your grasp, Rose Messina taught her children, having proven that for herself time after time.

“She said: ‘You reach for the stars; if you get the moon, you’ve done a great job,’” said her son, Chris Messina, Hauppauge High School’s wrestling coach since November 1981 and one of Long Island’s winningest. “You don’t accept defeat, you don’t accept being second best. And that was her whole life.”

Yet she was the exact opposite of a “winner takes all” practitioner.

Instead, she brought countless communities together with her generosity, compassion, caring and devotion, from sports rivals to her children’s classmates and neighbors, to so many who just needed a helping hand.

“When people ask for help, you do what you can; when you do something, you don’t do it halfway, you do it 100 percent,” Chris Messina said.

Rose Anzillatto Messina died of natural causes on Aug. 10 at her son’s home in Hauppauge with her family around her. She was 97.

Born Nov. 6, 1921, in Retsof, New York, about 55 miles east of Buffalo, Messina grew up in Huntington. She reached barely 4’8” and was nicknamed “Pee Wee,” but in high school, she was voted outstanding female athlete four times, playing varsity field hockey, basketball, volleyball and softball.

Her diminutive stature was prized by riveters at Grumman Corp., where she worked during World War II, because she could reach places very few could.

Messina also was a catcher for a semipro team, her son said, and was asked to go pro but opted to marry Dominick Messina in 1946 instead — a loving union that ended only with his death after nearly four decades.

Her husband, a 3rd Army infantryman, had fought in the Battle of the Bulge; after his discharge, he and his four brothers founded Westbury’s Central Island Banana Corp., supplying the region.

Though she dreamed of teaching physical education, she chose to be a stay-at-home mom for her six children. Idleness was verboten; excellence in a chosen pursuit — from dancing to drumming to sports — was the goal.

“She wouldn’t allow us to come home and sit and watch TV,” Chris said.  “Each one of us have a unique drive; it’s all from my mom.”

Sugarcoating was not her style. Her son recalled losing a key high school wrestling match as a junior. “My coach’s wife, all my brothers and sisters are crying,” he said. Rose said: “Well, you blew it; you have one more year to work harder and reach the goal you want to."

“Some people took it the wrong way. I didn’t,” Chris said. “I took it as corrective criticism.”

Rose Messina created her own sports — trash was tossed through an upstairs window to the pail below, backyard squirrels were fed from a basket filled the same way  — and after Chris took up wrestling, she became an aficionada. Never missing a match, she won over rival coaches and teams, offering the former cheese and pepperoni sandwiches and the latter tea, honey and oranges.

Other coaches would set out a chair for her. “They didn’t care where I sat, but they wanted to make sure my mom was comfortable,” Chris said.

Outspoken but never disrespectful, Rose Messina loved the Yankees. Encountering team owner George Steinbrenner dining with ex-Yankee great Phil Rizzuto at Yankee Stadium, she objected to Steinbrenner’s refusal to sign her Derek Jeter jersey and criticized Alex Rodriguez. Rizzuto, however, did sign the jersey. “Phil really was laughing. … I had to pull my mom away,” her son said.

Her charity was both formal and informal — and boundless — and she started young, as a World War II Red Cross volunteer. Class mother for all her children, she served as a caterer, chauffeur and seamstress, and she made learning fun. Answer correctly in her catechism class and you got to shoot a basket — that was her approach.

Wedding gowns were another specialty, including last-minute fixes for brides and bridesmaids.

Messina joined formal charities including the Columbiettes, a Catholic charity where she served for 75 years. She also spent 25 years with the Hauppauge Sideliners Club, which she helped found, and aided the Young at Heart group at Hauppauge’s St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church for 25 years, her son said.

In addition to Chris, Messina is survived by daughters Linda D’Amico of East Islip, and Diane Cazzetta and Ramona Bisono, both of Hauppauge; sons Frank of Huntington and Dominick of Farmingville; two sisters, Nellie Menza of Hauppauge and Lena Ferrara of Huntington; and more than two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Services were held at Moloney's Hauppauge Funeral Home, with interment at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Huntington. 

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