The Union building has been part of the Wagner College campus since 1970. So has Carmela Ruggiero, who celebrated her 80th birthday last December, and who still comes to work in the Union, at least three days per week.
I first met Carmela in the mornings. We would often arrive on campus at about the same time and cross paths as she walked to the Union and I to Reynolds House. She had noticed me walking or biking to work, because we live near each other.
That’s the kind of person Carmela is: someone who takes note of others. Someone who always seems to be glad to see you and who has time to start a conversation and get to know you.
“Carmela embodies all that makes Wagner a special place,” says Billy Tyler ’80, who is now a teacher and an actor out in Los Angeles. “Carmela is more than an employee. She is a very caring woman who can read a student’s face. I often heard her ask someone if they’d had a hard day. She was a mom in her own life, and a surrogate mom (of sorts) to many of us.”
Carmela loves to laugh and smile, and one of her favorite words is “beautiful,” which she pronounces “beeeuuuteeful.” She uses it to describe people, such as Wagner students back in the 1970s, when the drinking age was 18 and there was a bar that served beer in the Hawk’s Nest. “We had great kids,” she says. “They knew when to leave. Very respectful and beeeuuuteeful.”
Or she uses it to describe a coworker like Jim, who was a cook back in the days when she worked in the cafeteria baking cookies and serving desserts. As one of the few African American workers, Jim stood out. Jim was “beeeuuuteeful,” says Carmela, but so were all of her coworkers. “We were like family. If you needed help, we’d go. You never said no.”
That was the way she treated students, too. Billy Tyler remembers the days when she was the cafeteria ID checker, positioned at the top of the stairs to make sure everyone paid for their meals.
“Having come from very modest means, I was the first member of my family to go to college,” he explains. “I had the good fortune to attend Wagner on scholarship and grants, that made a quality education affordable to a student with tenacity and a dream.
“However, there were days when I had no money, and she looked the other way as I made my way downstairs to get lunch. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude for being in my corner, and she’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
Carmela and her husband, the late Anthony Ruggiero, had three children, Anthony, Theresa, and John. Mr. Ruggiero drove a city bus during the morning and evening rush hours, so while the children were growing up, Carmela worked from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., between her husband’s work hours.
The only time that Carmela has not worked in the Wagner Union during the past 44 years were the six months when she took care of Mr. Ruggiero at home, because he had become ill with Alzheimer’s. Her mother helped her care for him as well, until he had to go into a nursing home. Carmela visited him every day until his death, in 1999.
It was around the time of Mr. Ruggiero’s illness when the Wagner bookstore manager, Jo Manzi — who passed away in 2006 — called Carmela and asked her to work with her.
Carmela became fast friends with Jo and with student bookstore workers, like Connie-Jo Saitta O’Neill ’98. Connie’s friend Rosa Graziano ’98 recalls coming to the bookstore just to visit. “The sweet ladies of the bookstore really were great at giving us young ‘good’ girls advice,” says Rosa. “Straight up and to the point, and I would do my best to entertain them with my silly old-school Italian family stories and on-campus gossip.”
The other day at the bookstore, a water polo team member ran in to buy some cookies and an antacid before hopping on the bus for an away meet, when she discovered she didn’t have her wallet.
She didn’t have time to go back to her room and get it before catching the bus. “Don’t worry,” said Carmela. “Here, I’ll pay for it.” She pulled $10 out of her pocketbook. “I’ll pay you back!” the student said. “Don’t worry about it,” said Carmela.
She has done things like that so many times over the years. But, she says, “They all came back and gave you that dollar.”
— Laura Barlament | Editor, Wagner Magazine | April 25, 2014