Longtime Manhasset Resident Turns 100: Gladys McConnell shares stories from England to Manhasset

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Gladys McConnell,100, has lived in her Manhasset home since 1955.
(Photo by Jennifer Corr)

Gladys McConnell lives a quiet life in her house in Manhasset that she’s lived in since 1955 with her family. As someone who has survived multiple wars, and now a pandemic, she celebrated her 100th birthday on Aug. 8.

McConnell was born in London in 1921. During her college years, she balanced being an educated young woman studying home-economics and staying safe during World War II bombings.

“My college evacuated in the beginning of the war,” McConnell said. “I was at London University and then I graduated and I, of course, had to return to London because that’s where my home was. I was in London through all the bombings and I was teaching in the East End of London that got the most bombings of all.”

But, McConnell said, she survived. She’s included her experience of World War II in memoirs she’s written with the memoir group she founded at the Manhasset Public Library.

“I wrote one about being in London during the war,” she said. “It’s called ‘Business As Usual,’ because that’s how it was. After a while, the air raid [signal] went off and you took shelter. You didn’t think about it.”

McConnell did not care for teaching in the treacherous area of the East End of London, so she began volunteering with Ministry of Food in 1945.

“That was something,” McConnell said. “We had to teach people how to cope with what little food that we had. We never saw an egg for years during the war. We had powdered eggs and powdered milk. I really do not know how we survived, because we had two ounces of butter, about half a stick of butter, to last the week. And we had meat for one meal during the week.”

McConnell said the English were happy to get the meat rations that Americans typically disliked; liver, heart, kidneys and brains.

“Then at one point, things got really, really bad,” McConnell said. “If you lived in the country, you used to go out in the fields and pick stinging nettles… If you pulled them and touched your skin, you came out with a rash and it itched… we used to pull those and boil them and ate them. That killed all the poison.”

It was when she was volunteering that she would meet her soon to be husband, Morton McConnell, who died 11 years ago.

“He wanted me to come to America,” McConnell said. “But I have never been abroad before and I’ve never really been away from my family. I just thought I could never come to America.”

It was not until 1949, after years of writing back and forth to one another, that McConnell would decide to travel by boat, a pleasant six day trip, to Chicago and marry her husband Morton, a special effects director and student at the University of Chicago, in 1950.

“I found all these jobs for home-ec people,” McConnell said. “I got a job with a food photographer. I wrote cookbooks and it was wonderful.”

After Morton graduated, the McConnell’s had to decide between moving to California, known for making blockbusters in Hollywood, or New York, known for theaters and television.

“So we came to New York and I think we made the best choice,” McConnell said.

The McConnell’s moved to Manhasset in 1955 after living in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They settled in the same house on Cambridge Lane that McConnell and her son David McConnell reside in now.

“Why we came to Manhasset is because my husband loved to sail,” McConnell said. “And he said he had to be somewhere near the water and he had to be in the studio at all different times…Manhasset Station is one of the best stations to get to New York at all times.”

And, David added, the train station is a five minute walk from their house. Morton used to walk to the train station every day, David said, as he did himself once he began working in New York City.

“At the time the elementary school was where Mary Jane Park is now,” David said. “So I went to the elementary school and I walked to school and the high school is there too. So it’s all five minutes away. Back then there were three supermarkets in Manhasset. Again, all in an easy walking distance. And the library was a walk.”

To make their hometown even better, McConnell added, Manhasset reminds her of England with its hills and massive amounts of trees. Being there reminded of her home country and that was important to McConnell. It was also challenge, and a large expense, to travel there with four young boys to care for.

“I said I needed two things when we were looking for a house: I need a fireplace in the living room because in England, all the rooms have fireplaces, and I need a decent kitchen,” she said. “And I have a nice kitchen and I have my fireplace.”

Gladys McConnell, when searching for her home with her husband Morton, said she needed a fireplace because it reminded her of her hometown London. Atop the fireplace are her family photos.
(Photo by Jennifer Corr)

Framed photos of the McConnell’s four sons are placed atop the fire place, only two of them are alive today. In front of the fireplace, the slip covers atop the sofas were made by McConnnell herself and in the kitchen located adjacent to the living room, is where she spent countless hours preparing meals for her family of six. She said that her neighborhood has changed since she was a mother of four boys rather than four men, as women are no longer raising their children from home and are instead working.

“I knew everybody in the neighborhood,” McConnell said. “We pushed the babies in the perambulators and baby sat. Kids would come over and play and now, I do not know anybody in the area.”

Neighbors may not know that McConnell is among the longest-time residents in Manhasset. Because she can not walk far and is unable to see much due to macular degeneration, much of her days are spent at home, occasionally cooking for the week with the help of an aide. She is surrounded by her original paintings. She took up a painting class after falling into depression because she was unable to have a daughter.

“Somebody said to me once ‘what do you do for yourself?’” McConnell said. “And I said I do not have time to do anything for myself. She said ‘well you have to do something. Why don’t you look at the adult education and see if there is anything there in the evening that you would enjoy doing.’”

She painted for 50 years, a craft that took her to art shows and made her an art teacher to her friends. She also took up volunteering at North Shore University Hospital for 25 years.

“I was thinking about how I got from there to here,” McConnell said of her life journey. “Without the backing of family, I had lots of aunts and we were quite a close family, I had to depend on myself. And when a problem came, Morton and I had to solve it ourselves… There’s lots of things you have to solve with four boys.”

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