Rina Elena Paterno died peacefully in her sleep at her North Tustin home Feb. 16 surrounded by family and friends. She was 99. She will be remembered for her intelligence, strength, tenacity, perseverance, humor and fearlessness; for her love of education, teaching, adventure, travel, parties and dancing; for the pride she felt for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and for enriching the lives of the many people she welcomed into her heart and home. A fighter to the end, Rina lived the words of her favorite poet Christina Rossetti, “Choose love not in the shallows but in the deep.”
Zefferina Elena Orcesi was born at home in Piacenza, Italy on Nov. 1, 1922,
the only child of Gaetano Orcesi and Vittorina Balderacchi Orcesi. Her father, a contractor, and her mother, the owner of grocery stores, named her Zefferina, “little wind,” after her French grandmother.
In childhood, she spent part of her summers with her Italian grandmother in Montereggio, a hamlet in the Apennines, and two weeks with family at the seaside in Rapallo. In 1924, her father traveled to Brooklyn to expand his business to America. In 1927, Rina and her mother traveled to Montmartre, Paris, to stay with her paternal grandfather Joseph Orcesi before sailing to America for a yearlong visit.
She arrived in New York on the ocean liner Ile de France from Paris on Dec. 4, 1928, joining her father in Bath Beach near Coney Island. Their planned return to Italy the following December was cut short by the Oct. 29, 1929, stock market crash. “I remember people were jumping off roofs, and the next day it was my birthday,” she recalled.
After losing his business to the Great Depression, her father worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) building Dyker Beach Park, then later as a maintenance worker at the Fred F. French Building at 551 Fifth Avenue. “Before I knew it, we were eating chicken gizzards. That was my introduction to living in the United States. My only savior was doing well in school.”
Her father took her to the aquarium and museums, pressing the importance of education. After Rina passed the academic admission test for Winthrop Junior High, her family moved to Flatbush where they joined St. Jerome Catholic Church. She spent summers at Coney Island staying late to see the fireworks explode over the beach and watched the Brooklyn Dodgers from a friend’s rooftop overlooking Ebbets Field, listening to the games on a transistor radio. She graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1939 and at age 16 enrolled in Brooklyn College, the first New York City public liberal arts college to accept women.
At Brooklyn College, known as “the poor man’s Harvard,” she met both Eleanor Roosevelt and her first husband Francis P. (Pat) Paterno, studied under noted scholars such as psychologist Abraham Maslow, and was a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority. On Feb. 9, 1942, she witnessed the burning of the French luxury liner SS Normandie—the fastest ship in the world and larger than the Titanic—at Pier 88 in New York harbor. Though the sinking was an accident, the attack on Pearl Harbor a few months earlier led to rumors that the Nazis had sabotaged the Normandie.
After earning a degree in biology in 1943, Rina worked as a laboratory physiologist at City College. Pat, an officer in the Marine Corps, sent her letters from the Pacific documenting the war with photos, including of the Japanese surrender at Tientsin, China. On July 28, 1945, on the commute from her home on Nostrand Avenue and Cortelyou Road, Rina pushed her way out of the subway through a massive crowd gawking at the Manhattan skyline. A police officer told her a plane had crashed into the Empire State Building, to which she replied, “You think I believe that? I’m from Brooklyn.”
In 1946, she boarded a merchant steamer for France and Italy with medical supplies and care packages for her European family devastated by wartime destruction. She returned to her job at City College while Pat earned his MBA at New York University. After the Marines called Pat to serve during the Korean War, they married in 1950 at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Brooklyn, honeymooned in Niagara Falls, and then traveled Route 66 from Brooklyn to Camp Pendleton, California, in a Mercury convertible.
In 1951, son Peter T. Paterno was born in Queens; daughters Victoria I. and Susan F. Paterno were born in Rockville Centre, N.Y. They settled in Baldwin, N.Y., on Long Island. In 1962, Pat accepted a job with the aerospace company Autonetics in Anaheim, Calif., and the family moved to North Tustin. Pat remained in the Marine Corps Reserve, and Rina enjoyed the Officer’s Club at the El Toro and LTA bases, inviting Marines who couldn’t be with their families to dinner for the holidays.
She began teaching at Tustin High School and was recruited to Foothill High School when it opened in 1963. At Foothill, she taught biology, French and Spanish while earning a Master’s degree from Chapman University. She chaired the department of foreign languages for many years, helping to form a union and organize a strike that won increased wages and benefits for teachers. She touched and changed the lives of thousands of students she taught over many decades.
After Pat died in 1974, Rina married Arthur Dale Fox in 1980. She retired in 1985, and the two traveled the world and helped raise their grandchildren. She was active in social clubs, including the Red Hat Society and two bridge groups; she did extensive community service, volunteering at La Purisima Catholic Church, St. Joseph Hospital, the public library and the Tustin Area Woman’s Club of which she was president and a longtime member.
In 2007, she and Arthur traveled to Piacenza with two of her granddaughters, visiting the house where she was born and the grammar school she attended. They also visited her family in Casalpusterlengo, Sardegna, Lake Iseo and Verona. To celebrate her 92nd birthday, she returned to Italy with granddaughter Julia, enjoying long walks along cobblestone paths and dinners with family and friends that lasted well into the night.
In February 2017, Arthur died at 96 after a brief illness with Rina at his side.
She was a lifelong advocate for education as a way to transform lives and was most proud of the academic and professional achievements of her children and grandchildren.
Even as her eyes dimmed and her mobility worsened, Rina continued to play bridge twice weekly until the pandemic forced her to remain at home. She spent her final years teaching fearlessness and perseverance to the dozens of friends, old and new, who visited and shared meals at the dining room table. The compassion and love her caregivers gave unstintingly allowed her to remain sharp, witty and strong until the end.
Her favorite poem reminds us that though we no longer can see Rina, we will feel her adventurous spirit in the wind:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you; but when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
Rina is survived by her three children, Peter, Vicki and Susan Paterno; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. After the Rosary at 11:15 am, a funeral mass will be held at noon Friday, Feb. 25, at Holy Family Catholic Church in Orange followed by the burial at Ascension Cemetery in Lake Forest. In lieu of flowers, please donate in her name to the Brooklyn College Scholarship Fund or the Maryknoll Sisters.
http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/support/foundation/donate.php or phone 718.951.5074
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Rina Elena (Orcesi) Paterno, please visit our floral store.