Jennie Labate doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. After all, it’s just another birthday.
But for family, friends and others around her, her 100 years this weekend is worth celebrating.
Labate was born in an apartment above a saloon her father owned on River Street that no longer stands and spent most of her life nearby at the family house on Burtis Avenue, where she currently lives.
“She’s such a remarkable person, but she doesn’t see herself as a remarkable person, because she’s lived such a simple life,” said her niece Nancy Bixby. Bixby is one of 12 nieces and nephews who look to Labate as a family matriarch and an embedded part of Granville.
Born Oct. 6, 1913, as the oldest of six children, Labate attended two years in the old high school in the location of what is now Veterans Park and two years in the one that was built on Quaker Street.
“We were so excited to get into it,” she said of the new school. Her father, who had originally come to the area from Italy to work in the slate quarries, owned a general store on Church Street.
After high school, “It was the depression, so there were no jobs or anything,” Labate said. So she took a post-graduate business course at the high school, where she learned shorthand, typing and other office skills.
Soon after, her parents sent her to stay with two aunts who worked on the fashion-rich Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. One of her aunts was an assistant to a dress designer, so Labate went to work for her and earned $5 per week.
“They knew I could draw, so my aunt sent me to the New York School of Design,” she said, while flipping through a portfolio of her 1930s female fashion watercolor and charcoal sketches. Displaying a modesty typical of her generation, she didn’t show these drawings to her family until a niece happened upon them several years ago.
The discovery turned into an extensive exhibit at the Slate Valley Museum and much other publicity. As Bixby pointed out, Labate probably could have made a career out of her skills but chose to return to Granville instead.
“She takes pleasure in simple things—family, gardening; she’s an animal lover, she loves birds, neighborhood cats,” Bixby said.
After returning home from New York, she worked first in the office of Sheldon Slate Company and later for the Washington County Department of Social Services as secretary to the commissioner for 30-odd years before retiring.
Faith, family, friends
Her sister Anne retired from a job in New Jersey soon after Labate and came to move in with her.
“Anne and I were very close when we were young; we did everything together,” Labate said. And the two continued to do everything together, whether it be traveling regularly to New York City to see shows and visit relatives or sharing their love for reading.
“They were both avid readers. They would get the New York Times, and one of them would do the crossword and then erase it, and then the other one would do it,” said her nephew Francis Labate.
Anne and the rest of Labate’s siblings eventually died, but she is nearly constantly surrounded by her remaining family and friends. Her walls are covered in pictures of those passed and still living, and she keeps photo albums and newspaper clippings on hand.
“She’d refer to us as her immediate family, so she’s got a pretty big immediate family,” Francis said. He added that his aunt is a lifelong parishioner of St. Mary’s church, which is an important part of her life.
“Her life has always been her family and her faith,” he said. Her devotion is apparent in the rosaries and portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary stationed throughout her house. And every Monday, Friday and Saturday a couple of friends pick her up for noon mass.
“It means a lot to me; I try to follow it,” Labate said.
She doesn’t seem as impressed with her centenarian status as those around her. When asked about the secret to her longevity, she said it’s “just genes.”
Bixby, though, thinks it’s her Mediterranean diet and independence; every day for lunch she eats yogurt, a banana, tomatoes and a few M&M’s, and she also walks daily to Scottie’s and to the post office.
To recognize Labate’s landmark birthday, St. Mary’s will hold a 10:30 a.m. mass in honor of her on Sunday, Oct. 6, which will be followed by cake and a celebration.