Metro-East Living

99-year-old woman has faced life’s challenges with fortitude

Mary Ratay turns 99

Mary Ratay celebrated her 99th birthday last month with a family reunion in Fairview Heights, Illinois. She talked about taking a train from McKenzie, Tenn., as a small girl and settling in East St. Louis, where her father worked as a meat cutter.
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Mary Ratay celebrated her 99th birthday last month with a family reunion in Fairview Heights, Illinois. She talked about taking a train from McKenzie, Tenn., as a small girl and settling in East St. Louis, where her father worked as a meat cutter.

Mary Ratay’s kids were concerned about her getting behind the wheel at 92, but that didn’t stop her from going down to the driver’s license facility and taking the test.

The Fairview Heights woman told the state examiner that she would only go forward, not backward, even if it required driving around the block to get to her destination.

“She passed the test, but she came home and handed over the keys,” said her oldest son, Tom Ratay, 79, who now lives in New Hampshire. “She just had that determination. She wanted to prove she could do it.”

The driving story was one of many that Mary and her family told last month, when the Ratays held a reunion to celebrate her 99th birthday.

“There’s six kids, nine grandkids, 21 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild,” said her youngest son, Gary Ratay, 59, of Fairview Heights. “They all love her, and she loves all of them.”

Family members are perhaps most impressed by Mary’s fortitude. She quit school after ninth grade, got married at 17, cooked and cleaned in a house with no indoor plumbing, washed clothes with a wringer and helped her husband, Stan, with chores on their small farm.

As a young mother in the 1930s, Mary earned her GED and enrolled at Ruby Seidel’s cosmetology school in East St. Louis. She accumulated 1,000 hours and traveled to Springfield to become board certified.

“The only way I used (the training) was to keep the kids’ hair cut,” she said. “I gave permanents to a couple of girlfriends, so I made a little money that way, too.”

Mary lived at her Bunkum Road home with family until last year, when congestive heart failure sent her to Caseyville Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. She uses a wheelchair but remains mentally alert.

Mary is a long-time member of Sterling Baptist Church, which is the main place she drove before handing over her car keys.

“I just admire her personal strength as an individual,” said Tom, a retired elementary school teacher and principal. “She lived by herself all those years (after Dad died in 1988), and she never once complained.”

No doubt Mary comes from hardy stock. Her father was a Tennessee tobacco farmer whose crop was destroyed in a barn fire, prompting him to travel to East St. Louis and get a job at Swift Packing Co. before sending for his family.

“My mother had never been out of McKenzie, Tennessee, and she got on a train with three kids,” Mary said. “I’ll bet she was terrified.”

As a girl, Mary did domestic work, first for a woman with asthma and later an eye doctor’s wife, making 50 cents a day. She also helped the family make ends meet by picking up coal off railroad tracks and taking them home in a gunnysack.

Stanley Ratay first saw Mary walking down 25th Street, where his father ran a confectionery, on her way to a girlfriend’s house. They later met in a dance hall.

“I wouldn’t dance with him ’cause I didn’t know him,” Mary said. “But then someone introduced us, so I danced with him.”

The couple drove to St. Jacob to get married by a justice of the peace in 1935. Her father helped Stanley land a meatpacking job. Stanley retired at 65 before getting a college degree in music and history.

“He was always looking to learn and read and get an education,” said Gary, a sales director with Reynolds Container Products. “He was on the school board for Grant School, and he played violin with the Belleville Philharmonic.”

The couple’s other four children are Sharon Schader, of Tulsa, Okla.; Kent Ratay, of St. Louis; and Terry Ratay and Jerry Ratay, both of Fairview Heights.

At the family reunion, five generations posed for photos, including Mary, Tom, his oldest daughter, Karen Ratay, his granddaughter, Caitlyn Green, and his great-granddaughter, Ana Kowalewski, 4.

Mary can’t think of a secret to her long and healthy life. Gary noted that she ate fresh vegetables and meat raised on the farm and never smoked or drank.

“The thing that stands out in my mind (about Mom) is her willingness to listen,” Gary said. “She’s always had a listening ear for anyone who wanted to talk to her about a problem.”

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