Felimina “Minnie” Rotundo must have watched generations of students parade past her College Laundry Shoppe on Main Street in the heart of the University District. The sprightly centenarian with ageless blue eyes puts in 10-hour days at the laundry. The students help keep her young, she said.
Work comes naturally for this child of the Great Depression. She started when she was 15 at a shoe factory in a small town outside of Hershey, Pa.
Rotundo and her late husband founded the cleaning company in 1946 on West Ferry Street where Rotundo’s Laundry remains in business today, operated by her son Gary Rotundo since 1970.
Rotundo has worked longer than most of us have been alive. She is looking forward to August when she celebrates her 101st birthday at the beach with her big Italian family.
Chances are she’ll have her dog Benji by her side.
People Talk: How did you celebrate your birthday?
Felimina Rotundo: I have a summer cottage out at the lake in Angola, and we all got together. The neighbors, my family and I had a party. I like going out there. I sit in the sun and watch the lake. Do you know where Mickey Rats is?
PT: Where do you get your energy?
FR: I was energetic all my life. But don’t ask me to do housework. I don’t like to stay in the house. Do you know what I mean? I’ve been working since I was 15. I started in the shoe factory in Pennsylvania. Remember the saddle shoes? Well I worked in the factory but when they made new shoes they had me try them on. I was a perfect size 4.
PT: How tall are you?
FR: Well, I’m 4 foot 10, but as I got older I think I shrunk.
PT: Who is your top president?
FR: (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt. We loved him, man. He was going to do away with the Depression. The Depression was something terrible. It should never happen ever again. But you see, we didn’t have Social Security. We didn’t have welfare. And he came and brought all these programs in. Talk about hard times. You had one dress. You’d washed it, wore it. Washed it, wore it. When it wore out, you got another one. I worked 40 hours a week for five bucks – in the shoe factory.
PT: How did you spend that $5?
FR: You’d give it to the family because you had to combine your money to buy food and things. My brother and I were working. There was five of us kids. You didn’t have luxury. I had a dollar a week to spend, but that dollar went pretty far. A candy bar was only a nickel.
PT: How did you meet your husband?
FR: His cousin and I worked together at the shoe factory. She asked me if I wanted to meet him. I was 20. I said I had to ask my parents. Those days, you just didn’t go anywhere you wanted to go. So I met him. He went to Florida. He came back. We got engaged and married within a year. We were married for 50 years. He’s been gone for almost 20 years. Don’t forget I’m 100.
PT: Isn’t it hard to believe?
FR: I wonder how I got there so fast. You’re 50, it’s OK. And then you get to 60, and you think nothing of it. You get to 70, and it’s still OK. But when you hit 90 it starts to scare you. You wonder how long you’ll make it. I’m the only one left and we were a close family. It’s sad.
PT: How did you get in the laundry business?
FR: I was home with my two boys. They were little, you know. I was nervous and I wanted to go to work. So my sisters who had got married and moved to Boston called me up and said: “Do we have a business for you.” They were washing their clothes in a Laundromat, and there were none in Buffalo. So they gave me all the literature and we started one over on West Ferry, the first in Buffalo.
PT: Do you like washing clothes?
FR: My sisters were laughing because they knew I hated to wash. When I got married I sent my clothes out to be cleaned. I wash and dry clothes here. The dry cleaning is done on Ferry.
PT: Your prices are affordable.
FR: Dirt cheap – 70 cents a pound. That’s washed, dried and folded.
PT: Do the students keep you young?
FR: Oh, yeah. That’s a secret: Always associate with young people. Young people do a lot for old people. But I hear all the time that students are terrible. They make so much noise. They go to bars. They drink. I say let them drink. We all drank when we were young. If you don’t have your fun between 18 and 25, you’re licked. Because then you get married and have kids.