A Math Genius Born Too Early
My grandmother, Dorothy Joneselli, was brought up one mile from Purdue University. She believes if she were born a man she would have been a famous mathematician. Dorothy was the eighth woman ever to graduate from Purdue University. She was the first female math major. Women did not have very many opportunities in the forties and fifties and she never had the opportunity to show off how smart she is.
The early years were spent in West Lafayette, Indiana. Dorothy Joneselli was born in 1922 but her parents dropped the “elli” from her last name and she went by Dorothy Jones. She grew up in a large white farmhouse next to a huge cemetery. She had a brother and a sister that died young of the flu. She loved school and never got a B. Her high school and elementary school were held in the same building. The school was small but held many kids. She loved the library and read every book she could. She still loves to read today. There was only one regional school for all grades. It was very progressive and classes were taught by professors from Purdue University. Girls were not allowed to play sports in the schools, but she was President of the Math Club. Dorothy earned perfect grades and got into Purdue.
Growing up in Indiana was hard. Farming was difficult and many farms failed. Her father failed at being a farmer and following in his fathers foot steps became a mortician. The family owned the large cemetery next to the farm. In the area of Indiana Dorothy grew up in had two kinds of people, poor people who had working farms and the ‘rich’ people that went to Purdue University. She talked about farming problems during the early years in great detail. It seemed to her that everyone had a farm and none of the farms were successful. Later in her teen years many people branched out into other business ventures because their farms were broke. The Great Depression had a hold of the United States and almost half of the population was unemployed at some point during 1929–1939.
Dorothy and her parents were poor and ashamed of being Italian. There were very few Italians living in the area so they had no support for their Italian heritage. Her parents went out of their way to disguise their ethnicity. They found it would aide their business to be American. They went to church every Sunday, even though her family was not religious, in an effort to fit into the community. They did not tell anybody they were Italian. Some close friends of theirs knew but not many. She did not celebrate any Italian holidays because most of the holidays revolved around religious beliefs. Her family had zero friends who were Catholic so they went to a non-denominational Christian church. Her father and mother, both spoke Italian only when they didn’t want her to understand what they were saying. The only reason she learned to speak Italian at all was Dorothy’s husband wanted her to take it in college. Even though her parents were fluent she actually took it as a class at Purdue. Her family made her lie about where they were from. They took every opportunity to hide their Italian heritage. They even pretended to be Norwegian when people asked.
Getting into Purdue University changed everything for her. She went to Purdue and graduated with honors in 1944. She only had two classes with a total of four other women in four years. She was the 8th woman ever to graduate from Purdue. It made her work harder in school being with so few women. She wanted to prove women were just as smart as the male students, if not smarter, and it drove her to get her degree in Mathematics. Purdue had a great influence on her life and she always dreamed of going. Her mother told her to study hard and she would talk her father into paying for it. She had clear goals about school. She wanted to become an Aerospace Engineer. In that time you needed a math degree to go into that field.
The college years had huge milestones for Dorothy. She was married in 1941 to a near stranger named Michael Scalzo and World War II had started. The war and marriage changed many of her dreams. Most of the college-aged men were drafted into service for WWII including her husband. During the war suddenly everything became in short supply. Things like meat and soap were impossible to get and she sold her rations to buy other items that she needed. During the war Ration Coupons were given to everybody to use at the grocery store in exchange for food or personal items. Ration Coupons were bartered just like cash back then. Her husband Mike was from New York. He was Italian and her family picked him out because he was also going to Purdue and also liked math. They had never met him either. Her father knew his uncle. She married Mike Scalzo after knowing him for only two weeks.
In those days women married very young and generally had kids right away. My grandmother felt she was lucky to start college without being married yet. Nearly all of her girlfriends from high school were already married and had a few kids before she graduated from college. If you had money back then your family could buy your way out of going to war but they were poor so he had to go. She had graduated college before he did so she felt she should have been able to support both of them when he came back from the war, but that did not work out. There were not too many opportunities for jobs for women.
The realization that even with a degree from one of the best colleges in the United States was not enough for a woman to get a job in the 40’s really hurt her. She was furious when Mike got his first engineering job. It was a job near campus that she had applied for. The man told her it was not for the “faint of heart”. Her husband had not yet graduated with his degree and was offered the job. She was more qualified than he was for the position. At that time in this country, jobs for women were limited to nursing, secretaries and teachers. She applied for at least 40 jobs and did not get a single offer. She eventually gave up and decided to be a math teacher. She hated being a teacher, but it was the only job that she could find. She taught for three years then quit and had kids. She liked working with the students, but it was never her dream job. She wanted to work in the Aerospace Engineering field.
She had two children name Lin and Jean and became a housewife for the next twenty years. She never wanted to be a housewife. Sexism was not illegal until the 1970’s. Women still do not make as much money as men doing the same job. She would have been really successful in business if she were born today. In the 1940’s and 1950’s nearly all the jobs were for men only.
Her life now is centered around reading and puzzle books. Grandma Scalzo lives in Ocean City, Maryland. She likes to do math puzzles and surf the Purdue University Alumni websites. Grandpa Mike died about ten years ago. She enjoys spending time with her five grandkids when they visit.
Grandma Scalzo is a genius. She could think circles around the men in her generation but they were too old-fashioned to think a woman could ever be smarter than them. She can count five decks of cards. When she works her way up to six decks she is going to Vegas to break the bank at blackjack. I feel lucky to have her genes in my blood but we are not very much alike because unlike me, my grandmother is a genius.