Every person who ever met my grandmother, Mary Jane Oliva, knew her as the original Rosie the Riveter. She believed more strongly than anyone I’ve ever known that a woman could do whatever she wanted, regardless of gender, financial status, upbringing, and especially age. After completing post-graduate work at New York University, she began her first job with Pan American Airways at La Guardia Airport as a radio operator and technician. At the time, she was the first woman in Pan Am’s Atlantic Division to earn two radio licenses. In her later years, after getting married and raising three daughters, she took over her husband’s business in her fifties and ran the company with success well into her seventies. I asked my mother, Maureen, to answer a few questions about her life.
AN: What inspired her to run her own business for fifteen years and keep working into her seventies?
MN: Her husband opened the business—an appliance service company that had a large parts department, that also provided installation and repair—and ran it for twenty-five years, and during that time, she never worked there. However, when her husband died when she was fifty-four, she went to work the next week and continued to run the business. I think she was motivated to take it over because of the progressive woman she always was.
AN: Did she ever entertain the idea of running her own business at thirty?
MN: No, not at all. She had just had her first daughter at twenty-eight and went on to raise two more daughters. I think at that time her thoughts were centered around her family.
AN: So she didn’t attempt it at thirty because her job was family at that point?
MN: Yes. She was married and raising three daughters and her husband was running the company.
AN: What was her biggest fear about taking over the business? Did it come true?
MN: Her biggest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to do it. But she did, and the business even ended up being more successful after she took charge of it, despite challenges that arose. After her first year, the building actually burned completely down and she had to find new headquarters. But after she and her fifteen employees moved in to the new place, that’s when the business really took off.
AN: What did she enjoy most about the experience?
MN: She was always good at business and I think she really enjoyed getting back into the business world; she had a great head for it, and a good memory. I remember one of her proudest accomplishments was when they were closing—she arranged to sell back all the parts to one of the manufacturers, Waste King/Thermador. The man who was in charge over at Waste King agreed to the sale in conversation, but she asked to have it put in writing. When it came time to close the deal, the man tried to back out of the deal but she came forward with the signed agreement and the business deal proceeded.
AN: What do you think she learned about herself through her experience running the business?
MN: That she actually had the strength to do it and succeed.
AN: What advice do you think she would give women—specifically younger women—who are hesitating for whatever reason about pursuing a goal or dream?
MN: My mother was the original Rosie the Riveter. She always believed that women could do anything they put their mind to, even before [that idea] was popular. She always believed that she could do anything a man could do. So, she would tell you to go for it. She’d say, “You can do it!”
Read about another Age-Defying Woman.