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A century of positive energy: Yolanda Dagata turns 100

A remarkable woman who was born when William Howard Taft was president of the United States is celebrating a milestone birthday this month.

Yolanda Dagata of Weston will turn 100 on Monday, June 25. It will be a special day for this joyful and upbeat woman.

“Yolanda is an inspiration to everyone,” said Wendy Petty, director of the Weston Senior Activities Center, where Ms. Dagata is a frequent visitor. “She talks to every single person here and always has something nice to say. She is a feel-good person,” Ms. Petty added.

After moving from New Jersey, for the past two years, Ms. Dagata has lived with her daughter Lois Coogan and son-in-law Joseph Coogan on Georgetown Road. She quickly made herself at home in Weston.

“The first time I brought my mother to the senior center, I went into another room for a minute, and when I came back she had already gotten to know someone. She said, ‘Lois, let me introduce you to my new friend,'” Ms. Coogan said.

A petite woman with smiling eyes, Ms. Dagata credits her longevity and good health to eating well — she loves green vegetables and salads — and daily exercise, especially walking. Ms. Dagata also loves to cook and has put together a cookbook of her favorite recipes to pass down to her daughter.

“My mom makes great stuffed cabbage and peppers and Hungarian goulash. She also makes great apple and blueberry pies,” Ms. Coogan said.

Ms. Dagata has a personality trait which Ms. Coogan said has served her well — “My mom lives in the moment. She doesn’t dwell on the past. She enjoys the here and now and focuses on the positive things in life,” she said.

Ms. Dagata also has a special philosophy when it comes to how she treats people. “Always remember not to hurt anyone. Don’t leave anyone behind you are hurting,” she said.

Coal miner’s daughter

With World War I looming on the horizon, Yolanda Michelucci was born in 1912 in Van Voorhis, Pa. Her parents were Italian immigrants who came to America from Serravalle, a town located in the hills above Florence in Tuscany.

As one of six children, Ms. Dagata and her family moved to Slovan, Pa., a coal-mining town, when Ms. Dagata was seven. Ms. Dagata recalls washing black soot off her coal-mining father’s face and feet each night. The family had no electricity or indoor plumbing and huddled around a coal-burning stove in the kitchen to stay warm in the winter.

With tough economic times preceding the Great Depression, at Christmastime the family wasn’t able to afford a holiday tree and there were no toys on Christmas morning. “We would get one orange, a candy cane and cookies,” Ms. Dagata said. One of her brothers teased the others by filling their stockings with coal and ashes.

In 1918, influenza hit the family hard and everyone got sick, including Ms. Dagata and her mother. Her sister Lizzie took care of them by putting garlic in small white cloths and tying it around their necks to keep the germs away.

During the war, food was scarce and there was rationing. All white flour and sugar went to the soldiers and the family had to make due with just cornmeal. Flour sacks were cut and bleached to make slips and underwear for the girls. During prohibition, neighbors made whiskey and sold it in pints.

Ms. Dagata got a job after school polishing furniture and made 50 cents a week. She used her earnings to buy gifts for others and was especially pleased to buy a geranium plant for her mother for Mother’s Day.

In 1928, when Ms. Dagata was 16, her father developed stomach cancer. One day he asked her mother to make the Italian peasant dish farinata, a pancake made with cornmeal and vegetables. That night, he said to Ms. Dagata, “Be careful of the road when you cross,” and died. He was 55.

Ms. Dagata had to quit high school in order to work and help support her family and never did graduate.

Married life

In 1933, Yolanda Michelucci married Harold Dagata, a relative of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The couple lived in New York and New Jersey and had a happy 47-year marriage. They had one child — Lois in 1938. Mr. Dagata died in 1980 at the age of 77.

As the times changed, so did the streetscape of New York and Ms. Dagata saw the building of the George Washington Bridge and Rockefeller Center.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, Ms. Dagata was Christmas shopping with baby Lois when she came up from the subway and was met by guards who told her she couldn’t walk on the streets because of what had just happened in Hawaii.

With economic times always in flux, Ms. Dagata decided to get a job and applied for a position as an assistant to the pastry chef of the former Shelton Hotel. With no formal pastry training or experience, she made a batch of muffins and convinced the hotel she could handle the job.

Years later, Ms. Dagata applied for a job at Lerner’s store, and lied on her job application that she had a high school diploma. She was hired and won many awards over the years as Lerner’s top salesperson.

“Looking back at things like that, I realize now my mother had a gift. She was enthusiastic and worked very hard to make sure she did things just right,” Ms. Coogan recalled.

After Ms. Dagata’s husband died, she took a job in an elementary school cafeteria taking care of children. She convinced the principal to buy games for the kids to play when they finished lunch.

When she was well into her 80s, she worked as a teacher’s aide in pre-school and kindergarten. She was so popular that when she was in her 90s, the school called her and asked her to substitute. They even picked her up to bring her to work.

When she finally retired, the school threw her a huge surprise party. “It was one of the nicest things ever done for me. It was very special,” Ms. Dagata said.

Children

Like her mother, Lois Coogan also developed a love for children. She and her husband Joseph moved to Weston 45 years ago, and Ms. Coogan was a kindergarten and first grade teacher at Hurlbutt Elementary School since 1988 until she retired last year. The Coogans have two sons, David and Christopher, and two grandchildren Lucy Ana and Leo.

David Coogan, a professor, said his grandmother always loved playing games with them, and it didn’t have to be anything fancy. He recalled a time when she held a stick in her hand and had him take one side and Chris the other for a tug of war. “Little did we know that the stick was actually two sticks joined together by her hands. She shouted go and we started pulling. Before you know it we were flat on our backs having ‘broken’ the stick,” he said.

Chris Coogan, a local musician, called his grandmother “an extrovert’s extrovert” because of her tireless energy. “She coined the phrase ‘Just do it’ way before Nike,” he said.

He recalled that she was once known as the ‘Mayor’ of her street because she organized block parties to bring her neighbors together.

“Some of these folks come to visit her and call her even today. She made everyone feel important and she liked to talk to you. I always liked that and hope that I can be like that as well,” he said.

The Weston Senior Center plans on honoring Ms. Dagata with a special luncheon for her 100th birthday. “Yolanda is someone special who touches everyone’s life. Everyone loves her,” Ms. Petty said.

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