When family and friends recount memories of Mildred Venditto, who died July 26 at the age of 100, adjectives such as “sweet” and “classy” and “loving” and “strong” often are trotted out.
But everyone mentions that her life also was a century of song.
“She loved music,” says granddaughter Amy Payne. “She played the organ at her church, and she had a piano and organ in her house that she practiced on. And Grandma liked singing — she was in the church choir.”
Even after moving from her own home and taking up residence at the Montclair Senior Living community about 10 years ago, Mildred continued to be known for her melodies — all sorts of melodies, from pop hits by Elvis Presley and John Denver to the anthem of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“She did like to sing,” recalls April Hagan, one of Mildred’s neighbors at the Montclair. When a local musician performed on Fridays for Montclair residents, Hagan says, “Mildred always wanted to sit right up by the piano, as close as she could get, and she snapped her little fingers to the beat.”
Among Mildred’s favorites: “‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.’ We played it at her birthday party, and she got a bang out of that. Another one was ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’
“And there’s that song that starts out ‘Off we go into the wild blue yonder…’ and ends with ‘Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps,’” says Hagan. “That’s one she’d always sing.”
The reason Mildred was so fond of the Army Air Corps anthem was that during World War II, she served in the Women’s Army Corps. It proved to be a pivotal chapter in her life.
Born in Marshfield in 1921, the youngest of four daughters to Thomas and Sarah Wells, Mildred followed two of her older sisters, Claire and Marteen, into military service in 1944. (Her eldest sister, Lucy, already was married and therefore ineligible.)
After completing basic training in Iowa, Mildred was dispatched to Childress Army Airfield in Texas where aerial bombardiers were being trained. (The Army Air Corps wasn’t designated a separate service, the U.S. Air Force, until after the war, in 1947.)
Mildred had worked as an operator at her hometown telephone company following graduation as a member of Marshfield High School’s Class of 1939, and the Army put that experience to good use, assigning Mildred to duty on the base switchboard.
It was at Childress that Mildred Wells met a determined young soldier from New Jersey, John Venditto.
“They told me that when they first met, she thought he was a pest,” says Amy, recounting her grandparents’ courtship with a laugh. “She didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But he was persistent — and he won her over.”
After the war, the newlyweds returned to civilian life together in Missouri. Mildred led John to Springfield, where he worked for more than 50 years as a bank officer, first at the former Union National Bank on the Public Square, and later at other local banks. John died in 2010.
Mildred had been raised in the Methodist church, while John was a staunch Catholic. She eventually converted to Catholicism and became an active member of Springfield’s Immaculate Conception parish.
“She told me that when she was little, she’d see a light in the window of a nearby building but didn’t know what it was,” says niece Molly DeLong, referring to her aunt as “Mid,” which was Mildred’s nickname in the family.
“When she got older, she realized it was Marshfield’s Catholic church. Aunt Mid said that when she converted, she felt like that light had been calling her all that time.”
Amy agrees: “It was something she took very seriously. It wasn’t a conversion on a whim; she really prayed on it.”
Mildred’s funeral service was officiated by the present pastor at Immaculate Conception, the Rev. Thomas Reidy, who, according to Amy, “mentioned that if he needed anything, Grandma was one he knew he could call on. And that was 100-percent true.”
Amy says that Mildred was a “100-percent grandma” as well.
“I used to tell people that she was the type of grandma that you’d see on a TV series or in the movies. She was the one making cookies and brownies. If you came over to her house, she always had snacks to offer you. We’d make Christmas cookies together — make the dough from scratch, cut out the shapes and decorate them.”
A special holiday treat, in honor of John’s Italian heritage, were pizzelles — crisp, flat, waffle-like cookies. “They were really, really thin,” recalls Amy. “They look like lace, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Grandma would make them from a special batter. My granddad really liked them.”
And from her days as an elementary and junior high student at Eugene Field and Pershing, Amy remembers that “any time treats were needed at school, Grandma would make the cupcakes or the cookies or whatever.”
Another memory: “I wanted to make a set of pajamas one time. Grandma could sew, although she didn’t do it often. But she had a sewing machine, and so we bought a pattern and the fabric, and she helped me make those pajamas.”
Mildred’s maternal ways with children extended into her great-grandmother days, Amy notes.
“I remember when my two kids were little, Grandma was really good with them. She played along with whatever games they wanted to play, and indulged them in most anything they wanted to do. When we were at her house, I’d be like ‘No, don’t touch that!’ but she’d say ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ Or the kids would be doing something like disassembling a flashlight and she’d say ‘Oh, look, they’re so smart!’ And I’m like ‘Grandma, they’re just taking it apart…’”
Mildred served as a role model in other ways.
“Grandma always dressed very stylishly. When I was growing up, we went to the beauty shop every Friday. Until just a few weeks ago, she had her hair done,” says Amy. “She liked to look nice. She knew what looked classy, and she wanted to, you know, look her best always.”
Mildred and Amy, both born in October, shared opal as their birthstone. “John always bought Mid opal jewelry,” says Molly. “She always wore an opal ring.”
Mildred enjoyed playing bridge, reading inspirational books, staying up late to watch Johnny Carson on the “Tonight” television show, taking friends to lunch at Twin Oaks Country Club, going with John to the Heritage Cafeteria for supper. She drove herself until she was almost 90; she bequeathed her Kia sedan to her granddaughter, and it continues to serve Amy well.
“Grandma loved birds, and she loved monarch butterflies. She had bird-feeders in her backyard, and there was birdseed everywhere,” says Amy. Mildred also collected bird figurines, especially bluejays, perhaps a holdover from her youth in Marshfield, where the high school athletic teams are known as the Bluejays.
A reminder of Mildred’s early years in Marshfield occurred this April when she was invited back to her former hometown and honored as the oldest surviving graduate of the high school there. The event provided a heartwarming opportunity for her to visit with Dr. Tommy Macdonnell, Marshfield’s beloved physician, state legislator and decorated World War II veteran.
“They had played together when they were kids,” says Molly, who, with husband Garry, accompanied Mildred to the event. “Dr. Tommy was a year younger than Mid, and they said that when she started school while he still had to stay at home, he cried and said, ‘I want my friend back — I don’t want her to go to school!’
“They gave Mid a medal at the ceremony. Oh, it was so sweet! She and Dr. Tommy had been close growing up, but they hadn’t seen each other for a while. They had their wheelchairs parked next to one another — he was almost 100, and she was almost 101 — and they talked and laughed with each other. It really was sweet to see.”
(It happened just in time. Dr. Macdonnell died July 10, two weeks and two days before Mildred.)
Back at the Montclair, residents heard all about the ceremony from Mildred. “She wore that medal that they gave her around her neck and told us all about it,” says neighbor Hagan. “She was so proud of it.”
Another Montclair resident, Gloria D’Alessandro, says that as a fellow member of the Immaculate Conception parish, she had known Mildred casually as the church’s organist and choir member. But when D’Alessandro moved into the Montclair five and a half years ago, she and Mildred became regular table partners at mealtimes.
“I got to know her better here,” D’Alessandro says. “She had a wonderful personality — she was always ‘up.’ We laughed a lot, and I really enjoyed her stories. She told me about her time in the Army. She was only in for about a year and a half — but it was long enough for her to meet her husband, so that was a good deal!”
Hagan joined Mildred and D’Alessandro for meals when she moved to the facility in 2020.
‘She just expressed joy and love all the time’
“When I first got here, I didn’t know anybody,” Hagan recounts. “Mildred and Gloria took me right in. You couldn’t have found a finer lady than Mildred. She just expressed joy and love all the time.”
It wasn’t always easy for Mildred to be so upbeat. She endured three bouts with cancer over the past two decades. But she battled the disease and stayed active.
Molly gives an example:
“She fell one night and they took her to the emergency room. I was the only one who happened to be available early the next morning when she was ready to be picked up. So I took her back to the Montclair about 6 a.m. and up to her room.
“She said, ‘Will you help me go through my clothes?’ She was in a wheelchair, and her eyesight was getting bad by then. She said, ‘I can’t tell what matches anymore, and I don’t want to wear things that don’t match.’ So we went through her clothes and matched them up. And I got her a couple of white shirts that would match with anything.
“Not long after, my granddaughter and I went over to see her, but Mid wasn’t in her room. So I asked one of the staff, and she said: ‘Oh, I just took her down to bingo.’ So — she just got out of the hospital, she can’t walk, she can’t see, but she’s playing bingo. You couldn’t keep her down!”
D’Alessandro adds: “We had fun with Mildred. We miss her now. But, like they say, all good things come to an end.”
But for Mildred, only after 100 years.