Helen Dejana was born on Sept. 26, 1922, in Port Washington. She died on Oct. 18 in Port Washington. And each of the 96 years between was spent in Port Washington.
“She felt a very strong feeling of community and belonging” in Port, said her son, Michael Dejana of Long Island City. “Her whole family and her work life were in Port Washington.”
Her consistency also applied to her job as an office manager and bookkeeper for Higgins Fire Protection Inc., where she worked for 70 years.
“Her incredible dedication and work ethic, working and driving up until her late 80s, it was an inspiration for people who always feel forever young and never want to stop working,” Michael said.
Born as Helen Salerno, she was one of six children of two immigrants from Italy who arrived in the United States in 1911 and were married in 1912, according to Michael Dejana. She attended local schools and graduated from Port Washington High School in 1941. At school, she refused to be steered into home economics, choosing instead to study bookkeeping. A year after graduation, she used her experience handling books to secure a job with Higgins Fire Protection Inc.
“Legend has it she was the first woman to work on a construction site in New York state, back in the early 40s,” Michael Dejana said. “When I was born, she was allowed to work at home, which was pretty groundbreaking for the 1950s.”
In 1958 she married John A. Dejana, another Port Washington resident whom she had met through family. They remained in Port to raise their two children, Michael and Regina. Dejana’s husband died in 1994.
Even after her children had grown and her husband had died, Dejana continued to work. George B. Higgins Jr., the current president of Higgins Fire Protection, told Newsday that he had known Dejana since the day he was born and that he considered her a big sister.
“She taught me that you show up, you try your best and say a prayer, and things will work out,” he told Newsday.
Dejana finally retired from her job in 2012.
Not only did she remain in the same town and job for seven decades, but lived in the same house almost all her life. The building which she lived in since 1927 hosted many large family gatherings over the years.
“She loved to talk to people, to introduce herself to people, to strike up a conversation with pretty much anyone,” Michael Dejana said. “She had a real outgoing, warm, personality that many, many people warmed up to right away.”
Helen Dejana is survived by her two children, two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. Her funeral was held on Oct. 22 at St. Peter of Alcantara Church in Port Washington.
Dejana died from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, and her family has requested that any donations in her memory be made to the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation.
Reach reporter Luke Torrance by email at [email protected], by phone at 516-307-1045, ext. 214, or follow him on Twitter @LukeATorrance.