The Northside Oral History Project

Mae & Nick Ferraro

by Don Gagliardi

Mae and Nick in September, 2002
Nick and Mae Ferraro in September, 2002
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"We've always lived within a two-mile radius in the Northside neighborhood where we were born," says E. Taylor St. resident Mae Ferraro of herself and husband of 63 years, Nick.

Mae was born on the 600 block of N. 12th St. in 1920 and grew up on the 700 block of N. 11th St. Nick, four years older, was born in 1916, a block away at 610 N. 11th St. "We started going together when I was 14," Mae says. "He would come to work on my father's vegetable farm on Eleventh St. for fifty cents a day," during the Great Depression, she recalls. "He taught me how to drive."

Nick's parents were born in the Calabria region of Italy, and Nick's father worked in the orchards after immigrating to San Jose.

Mae's family roots in this country date back even earlier, to the Nineteenth Century. Mae's grandparents were born in Italy, but Mae's father, Joe Cancella, was born in the Northside, at 665 N. 12th St., in 1897. "He was a 'footracer.' My brother Lou has the trophy from when he ran his last race, around Lake Merritt in Oakland, in April 1922," Mae says proudly.

Cancella married Mary Sunseri in 1919 and the couple lived in the same N. 12 th St. house where he was born and had three children, including Mae. They later moved to N. 11th St., where the family farmed four acres. Cancelli, like other area farmers, would take their produce to the produce market on (the appropriately named) N. Market St. until later the market at 7th and Taylor Sts. was built in the Northside.

The Mae's Family in April, 1918 -- Maggies Baptism

In 1928, Mae's father went into the Christmas tree business, with a lot at 16th and Santa Clara Sts., until San Jose Hospital (now San Jose Medical Center) expanded. He was San Jose's "first Christmas tree man," Mae says.

Nick attended Roosevelt High, and Mae went to Peter Burnett. The couple was married in April 1939 at Holy Cross Church. Mae was 19 and Nick 23. Within two years, their oldest son Peter was born, followed later by a second son, Nick, Jr.

Nick and Mae's Wedding

During World War II, Mae's father had the concession booths at Alum Rock Park and Mae took care of them. Blind soldiers from Palo Alto would be bused to the park each weekend and Mae would open the dance hall and put music on for their dancing. Every Sunday after closing, Mae would prepare pasta and all the servicemen in the park would come and eat.

Thirty-eight years ago, Nick and Mae moved into their current home on E. Taylor St., which they purchased for $22,000. "That was a lot of money in those days," Nick remarks. The boys have long since moved out and each has a boy of his own, Greg (Peter's son) and Brian (Nick, Jr.'s boy), grandchildren for Nick and Mae. "Watching my grandchildren grow up was the highlight of my life," Mae says.

Nick and Mae enjoy working the yard, which, like their house, is immaculately maintained. Nick is proud of his tomatoes grown along his back fence, and Mae insisted that I take home a bag of fresh tomatoes and zucchini.

Retired the past two decades from work in the old Hart's Department Store, a former San Jose institution now defunct, Mae attends mass at Holy Cross Church daily, and you're likely to find her in Rollo's Donuts on N. 13th St. afterward communing with old friends, or on the Backesto bocce courts.

Nick Painting the ceiling of the Holy Cross

"I'm not much of a bocce player," admits Nick, himself a retired painting contractor. "I play golf and I used to play baseball." Nick's love of these sports is evidenced by numerous trophies over the mantle in the Ferraros' spacious basement, including a plaque recognizing Nick as the Little League "Manager of the Decade" for the 1950s given to him a quarter-century later in 1982 "with love and gratitude" by members of his San Jose Northern Little League team.

Ferraro led the boys under his tutelage (including sons Peter and Nick Jr.) to the league championship, but that wasn't the reason for the tribute. "The kids were taught to be good, and the managers were good men, too," Ferraro recalls. "All the kids got to play regularly, the poor players as well as the best, even in the all-star tournaments. Winning is fine, but more important was the kids had fun. Sportsmanship and fun are more important."

Nick (right, rear) and his team

"There wasn't any catcalling or swearing back in the 50s," Nick says. "The parents cheered for both teams equally, and you never saw the parents boozing it up in the stands like now. I don't feel right even watching the games anymore."

The Ferraros have been recognized with numerous awards over the years for their dedicated service to their church and community.

Mae has been active in Catholic Social Services and raised funds for Catholic Charities. She has organized social and religious activities for wheelchair-bound citizens, coordinating transportation from their homes to various churches. As president of the St. Patrick's Ladies Guild, she started a program to bring children from the County shelter to Sunday Mass and breakfast. In her spare time, she gathers baby clothes for unwed mothers and sends "Sunshine cards" to the home-bound, the ill and elderly, and she organized a toy drive for patients at Children's Hospital in Oakland. "Mae has a loving spirit which warms all those near her," says Dru Foote, a nurse at the hospital. "I feel privileged to know her."

In 2001, Mae received the Italian Catholic Federation President's Award. "Mae has become well known and loved by countless people who have benefited or been inspired by her enthusiastic participation in too many charitable and apostolic activities to list here," according to the church publication write-up.

"We're grateful for what we've got -- health, happiness, and years of good memories of our life here on the Northside," says Mae.

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