By Joe Sack
Nora Mitchell was born an only child in the Manchester-Liverpool area of England in 1918. Her father was a carpenter. Looking for work when times were tough after World War I, her parents moved the family to the United States when she was 5 years old.
Searching for a place to call home, her parents embarked on a Sunday drive and came across a band playing in a gazebo. They were enchanted. They walked through town and saw an apartment for rent at 37 Purchase St. That was the sign they needed, and they moved to Rye.
“It was the block between Locust and Elm, the red brick building. It was Hallohan’s Dry Goods. It occupied two stores with a door in the middle, two sides of the building and there were apartments upstairs,” Nora said. “Half of the people I knew lived in the village in apartments. They talk now about bringing housing back to the village—they had it years ago.”
According to Nora, Rye was different then. “It was a very tiny town, 5,000 population in those days. There were street lights that governed everything you did. When they went off, it meant you came home. There was a street car running down the middle of the main street that went all the way to Playland. And there were open trolleys in the summer time.”
Shortly after moving to Rye, Nora was walking near the YMCA along the stone wall by the Blind Brook and lost her footing. She fell into the brook and passed out after hitting her head on the rocks. She was rescued by a passerby, a Mr. Herman Mergenthaler, who, luckily, fished her out. She was driven by Corny Balls in the back of a police car to the hospital, where she recuperated.
In another near tragedy, a girl Nora knew fell into Mead Pond while ice-skating, but survived. She was a cousin of Tommy Hagel’s. “You don’t know who Tommy Hagel is,” Nora said. “Well, he used to be in the Rye Liquor Store there, with Tommy Nordmund. He’s retired now, but he’s still around. There was Tommy and Jimmy Hagel, they were twins. And Billy Hagel, their other brother, was police chief at one point.
“I prefer the old Rye. When you knew everybody. It’s lost its character. It’s become sort of a showpiece now, whereas it was a community before. You don’t know anyone anymore. I guess you live here as long as I have, you’re bound to get that kind of change.”
As a child, Nora would watch movies at the Rye Playhouse, where the current City Hall now sits. Matinees were 20 cents. But sometimes she would sneak in with her friends because the doors were kept open in the summer. There was no air conditioning.
Nora attended the Resurrection Grammar School, when it was housed in the stone building on the Post Road, which has since been converted to condominiums. The church was on Purchase Street, “where the five-and-ten used to be.”
“I’d only been here a year or two when they moved it around to Smith Street and the foundation of it is still there,” she said. “And it was there until they built the new one down on Milton Road, about 1928.”
After graduating from Rye High School in 1936 with job prospects dim, Nora’s mother suggested she use her British nationality to her advantage. In 1938, she accepted a job in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. She worked there for the next 12 years, including during World War II.
Nora met her husband, who had been in the army and was from Arkansas, on a blind date. He worked for the equivalent of H.U.D. Nora made sure he got a transfer to the New York office so they could move back to Rye. They had three daughters, and lived on Sanford Street.
Nora’s husband died at a young age in 1961. She needed a new job to make ends meet.
“Fred Talento came to my rescue,” she said.
The city clerk helped her get a job at City Hall, which was then housed in the Square House. “Meetings used to go on to all sorts of hours,” Nora said.
Mayor Clay Johnson was “a very compassionate sort of person.” One Christmas Eve, after Nora’s car was rear ended on the Post Road, he offered to help her get a new car.
Mayor Ed Grainger was “very pleasant” and a “hard worker.” He made sure the Oyster Bay Bridge was not built, but it was “touch and go for a while.”
Jack Paulus was the first city manager when Rye adopted that form of government. He invented the “packet” that would go out to council members, and still does today, although now in electronic form. Mr. Paulus passed away earlier this year.
One city manager who came after Paulus was asked to leave suddenly under weird circumstances. Phil McGovern, the city assessor, was asked to take over temporarily. Everyone called him “Cinderella” for that.
Tony Antinozzi, the corporation counsel, also filled in when necessary. He was “marvelous and lovely” and “honest as the day is long.”
Speaking of her bosses through the years, Nora smiled and said, “I think some of them were afraid of me.”
“We didn’t have all the assistants like they have today,” so Nora did it all. “I was very amused at the current people having an order of protection. I thought ‘who protected me all those years.’ We used to get really some nut cases. And some very interesting things too.”
Nora served in the city manager’s office for a quarter century, from 1961 to 1986.
After retirement, Nora remained an avid follower of the City Council and was known to watch all the meetings on cable TV.
“I noticed on Facebook they had been talking about ‘you know you’re from Rye if you remember’ such and such,” she said. “And it’s so tempting to get in there and straighten them out because they’re so wrong about so many things.”
Many years after Nora was rescued from the Blind Brook, Mr. Mergenthaler checked in on her, as he became curious about the little girl he had saved.
“He gave me a little bracelet.”
Nora survived that day, and lived a full Rye life, to the grand age of 95 years old. She passed away Oct. 17.
-Mayor-elect Sack is a Rye City Councilman