“Life has been good” – Meet Post University’s Oldest Living Graduate (so far)

As we begin our year-long countdown to Post University’s 125th Anniversary, we want our celebration to include not only our current students, faculty, and staff, but also the many alumni throughout Post’s history that have helped to shape the university we are today. So, we are reaching out to our alumni who attended Post University throughout its history— to ask for their stories, their memories, of Post through the decades.  We will spend the next year collecting these stories through print, and audio and video recordings that we will share as part of our 125th Anniversary celebration. If you would like to participate in our “Post Through the Years” project and share your memories of your time as a student at Post, please contact Bob Sembiante at bsembiante@post.edu.

To kick off this project, we decided to start with a search for our oldest living graduate.  Within days of promoting the search through our blog and the media, we heard from several Post alumni in their nineties. In the weeks to come, we’ll be sharing their stories with you; all have special stories to share of their experiences at Post. But we were particularly delighted to hear from Helena Distefano Summa, who will turn 101 this year and graduated from Post College in 1931. Below is her story of her time at Post College when Harry Post served as the school principal.  She also shares some wonderful insights on the changes she’s seen throughout her extraordinary life.  I know you will enjoy reading this story, and encourage you to share your own story with us if you’re a Post grad.  Whether you’ve attended Post or not, I invite you to join us as we embrace our rich past and celebrate all the wonderful things that are happening right now at Post University.   

Don Mroz, Ph.D.

President of Post University

Post College graduate, Helena Distefano Summa will turn 101, and she recently spent some time talking with us about her life and her time at Post College.

Helena Distefano Summa

Helena Distefano Summa

“Life has been good to me,” she said, reflecting on the path her life has taken since graduating from then Post College in 1931.  The Waterbury native, the only one of five siblings to pursue her education beyond high school, now resides in Florida and has vivid memories of what life was like back in her college days, and beyond.

Helena graduated from Waterbury’s Hopeville Elementary School, where she was the class valedictorian.  In Wilby High School, Helena took typing and bookkeeping courses, and found she had the skills to succeed in the business world.

“I went to Post College for the business courses, and found I was ahead of the game when I enrolled, due to my high school coursework.  I could complete Post’s program in one year, instead of two.”  The tuition at the time was approximately $20 a week, relatively expensive for 1930, and Helena’s mother somehow managed to make the payments.  “I’m not sure show she did it,” Helena explained, “but back then you didn’t ask questions.”

Helena remembers making the mile long walk to college each morning and the return walk each evening.  Then, Post College was located in the Jones Morgan building on Bank Street, right next door to Howland Hughes Department Store in downtown Waterbury.  “There were only 20 or 25 other students in class with me, and all the classrooms were on one floor.  I remember the typing room, filled with typewriters,” said Helena.  “Miss Edna Dews was my stenography teacher, and students had to transcribe letters Miss Dews dictated and then type them perfectly in order to move on to the next lesson.”  Aside from typing, Helena also worked on her math skills.  “We didn’t even have adding machines at the time,” said Helena.  “I learned to do all the mathematics work in my head.”

It was the Post family members Helena remembers the most.  “Harold Post was the principal, and his son Donald was his assistant.  I remember them as being very compassionate, and quite the gentlemen.”

It was Harold Post who helped Helena get her first job out of school.  At the time, area businesses would contact the principal when they had job openings, and Mr. Post recommended Helena for a cashier position at Kay Jewelers.  Helena took the job and stayed for two years.  “I loved my job,” Helena recalled.  Then she got married.  “In that time we didn’t live together, or do the things people do today.  We used to get married.”  Kay Jewelers once sent a messenger to Helena’s new home, with a message asking her to come back to work.  Helena remembers her husband’s disapproval.  “My husband believed at that time that married women stayed home.”

Helena did stay home and raised three children.  She used her business skills to manage the family budget and improve their lifestyle, eventually sending two of her three children to college.   “We lived in a three family house when I got married, living on the top floor,” she said.  “I bought the house next door eventually, and we all moved to the first floor of the new house, with much more room.”

Helena's diploma from Post College

Helena’s diploma from Post College

It wasn’t until her son, Waterbury resident Billy Summa, graduated college and bought Bunker Hill Pharmacy that Helena returned to the working world, again using her business skills.  Billy asked his mother to be his bookkeeper, and Helena set up the billing and charge accounts system from scratch.  The business grew to the point where Helena remembers sending out 800 bills per month.  “I remember the office had an adding machine and I had to learn how to use it.  But I never liked it,” she said. Helena’s daughter Jane recalls the pharmacy’s accountant once saying he never checked Helena’s figures, which she did in her head because of her training at Post, because “they were always right.”    Helena worked for her son’s business until she was 82 years old.  When her son introduced computers into the office, Helena remembers saying, “Billy, those aren’t for me.”

Helena remembers many technological changes introduced during her life.  She’s seen the icebox transition to the electric refrigerator, and radio replaced by television.  “Now,” she says with a sigh, “all this technology.  Oh, heavens!”  Helena specifically remembers her husband teaching her to drive, when cars had to be started with a hand crank.  She was learning on a standard shift, and making her first right hand turn, when her husband caught her looking behind her instead of forward.  When he asked her why she was looking back, Helena replied, “because I want to make sure the rest of the car is coming with me!”  At the time, gasoline cost 20 cents a gallon.  “I remember filling up the tank for $1.00!”

Helena recalls some friends she made during her time at Post College.  “In those days, I made a lot of nice friends, but we lost contact,” she said.  “I got married and had a baby after 13 months, and you get a new set of friends, and new neighbors.  You begin a different life.”  Helena lived in Waterbury until 1995, when she moved to Florida near her two daughters, Jane and Joyce.

Now, Helena still uses her math skills, in a very different way.  “I play bridge twice a week, and win most of the time,” she said. She is invited to play daily, as a matter of fact, and fits the game into her schedule as much as time permits.

“Life was good to us,” Helena said.  “I never expected to live to be 100 years old.”

Life is good, indeed.

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