Italia “Talley” Mazzeo has lived for 99 years with three key principles: moderation, attitude and patience.
When Mazzeo was diagnosed a few years ago with neuropathy, which causes pain and numbness in her hands, the active Romney, W.Va. resident had to use all three principles to adjust her life.
She had to abandon some of her favorite activities like knitting and needlepoint because they required precise hand control. But she focused her attention on the things she could do.
“You do what you have to do, and you adjust. You make the adjustments,” Mazzeo said.
The woman, who lost her family home to fire when she was in high school and gave up a college career in the 1930s to take care of her ailing mother, knows something about adjustment. Talley is a first generation American, born on January 19, 1913 to two Italian immigrant parents, Augustino and Carmella Borzillo. The Borzillo family lived in the small mining town of Nanty Glo, PA, where six children were raised—Nicholas, Rose, Betty Elizabeth, America, Italia, and Belgium.
As a child, the self-proclaimed “tomboy” often played with her brothers and quickly realized she enjoyed physical activities.
Talley played field hockey, tennis and golf, and was a member of her high school varsity basketball team. She also played the trumpet.
After the family’s home burned to the ground when Talley was in high school, they moved to Washington, D.C.
After high school, Talley continued her education at the Wilson Teachers College in Washington, D.C. before transferring to the Washington School of Physical Education.
“I didn’t want to be working behind a desk all the time,” she said. “I preferred to be active, so I thought I’d be a physical education teacher.”
In 1934, she dropped out of school to help take care of her mother who fell ill.
“My mother had a heart attack, and so it was a choice between my brother continuing school or me going to school,” she said. “So since he was the man, I thought he should continue, and I’d stay with mother.”
Although Talley never received a college degree, she was still able to find her dream job and worked as a physical education teacher for the District Recreation Department in Washington D.C.
There, she was in charge of the children’s summer program. Talley organized activities, played games and loved making a difference in the lives of those she taught.
At the age of 99, the neuropathy in her hands has cost her some activities, but her love for sports and competition hasn’t changed. Although she said she misses some things she used to do, she hasn’t let the disability slow her down. In addition to playing the organ, she plays pool and cards with her family and online games with real and virtual friends.
Her son Lou, who is now 65 and a successful artist, said they play card games and golf on the computer, and she beats him in pool all the time. “She’s very competitive. She still tries to beat my pants off when we play anything.”
Talley’s competitive streak is well-honed. Lou said she passed the trait onto all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“We’ve always been competitive, as far as that goes. This modern trend is to just play the game and we won’t keep score – she doesn’t buy that, you know. She’ll keep score and has always taught us that. We believe in that,” Lou said. “My nephew’s son was learning a game, and Mom was teaching him how to play. She wouldn’t throw the game. She continued to win until he finally beat her.”
Talley is known throughout the Romney community as a tremendous pool player. She began playing pool at a young age when her father opened a pool hall.
“I would go take my little red riding hood basket and bring him his lunch. While he was eating, I’d take care of the pool tables… and that’s how I learned to shoot pool,” she said. “I lose some, and I win some. I have my own cue stick.”
Though Talley often wins, she doesn’t call it beating someone, she says she “skunks” him or her.
“Downstairs they have a pool table, and she will beat you on that table. That’s just plain as day, she will beat you,” said Jim Desintis, her neighbor.
Desintis’ wife, Vicki, said she wants to enroll Talley in a billiards competition at the Senior Olympics this June.
“Even if she shoots against one person… it would be a highlight of her life,” Vicki said. “With her attitude…she’s just amazing.”
Desintis said the couple is as close with Talley as possible without being relatives.
“I do tease her a lot. I ask her what Abe Lincoln was like when she voted for him,” Desintis said.
Those who know her well speak highly of Talley’s character.
“She was always a competitive person; she has always been a model person. She’s never intentionally tried to hurt anyone in her life,” Lou said. “She’s always conducted herself as a perfect lady. That to me is the most important thing to be remembered for. She’s never built a bridge or anything like that, but she just led her life in an exemplary way, so I think that’s the right way to be remembered.”
After working for the District Recreation Department in D.C. for six summers in her youth, Talley married her then boyfriend, John Mazzeo in 1941. They traveled around the world together and had two sons – Lou and John, with whom Talley now lives.
Her husband passed away in 2003, after 62 years of marriage. She still wears her wedding ring, a sign that her love for her late husband has never died.
“I have no complaints, really. The good Lord’s been good to me,” she said. “I have good family, I had a good husband… I can’t ask for more.”
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