Isabel Varlotta, a businesswoman, community servant and former village mayor known for her kindness, practicality and positive attitude, died last Friday. She was 89.
Varlotta died after a long illness with family by her side, family members said.
Varlotta, who moved to Great Neck in 1958, was dedicated to public service for decades. She founded the Red Cross blood bank at St. Aloysius Church in 1964, according to family members, and went on to held several posts in government, including Great Neck Village mayor from 1993 to 1997.
Varlotta also “worked in tandem with her husband Gerard in numerous business endeavors,” family members said, including as president of Varlotta Construction Corp.
“She never approached any of these positions to be the first woman but rather to provide the community or organization the best of her abilities,” her family wrote in an obituary. “She was tireless in her efforts with many days beginning as a mother, followed by a business woman, then a mother, chef and tutor and ending her day with community government service.”
Isabel Natalie Rich Varlotta was born on Aug. 18, 1929, to Ellen Shekalus and Saul Rich in New York City. She and her future husband, Gerard, were neighbors growing up in the Bronx, starting as friends. They then dated and were married in 1956, before moving to Great Neck. The two had four children together.
Gerard Varlotta, her son, said his mother believed in the power of an honest day’s work and the importance of treating people honestly. She always wanted to do the best job she could do, he also said, and never said anything disparaging or critical about anyone.
Their family was also a blended religious family, he said, celebrating both Jewish and Catholic holidays.
“She was able to blend us into good people and to show us that there needs to be no discrimination,” Varlotta said.
After Varlotta was the founder and chairman of the Red Cross blood bank at St. Aloysius Church, her family said, her friends encouraged her to get involved with village government.
She served on the Planning Board starting in 1977 and on the Zoning Board of Appeals. She then became the first woman trustee, the village’s first female deputy mayor in 1981 and its first – and only – woman mayor in 1993.
“She was a number of firsts in our village,” Ralph Kreitzman, a former mayor of Great Neck Village, said on Tuesday. “She had a great love for and dedication to our village.”
Varlotta was also a vice chair of the Great Neck Housing Authority and a commissioner of the Great Neck Auxiliary Police, her family wrote, and a village historian, according to The New York Times. She was also a volunteer at a school for disabled children in Roslyn, her family said.
Louis Massaro, the superintendent of public works who has worked in the village for 36 years under several mayors, said Varlotta stuck out to him. She was a great mayor, very kind “and a very good person overall.”
“She generally really cared about the village and the stuff she was doing,” Massaro, who was a foreman at the time Varlotta was mayor, said on Tuesday. “It wasn’t like she did it to put a feather in her cap – she genuinely cared about what she was doing.”
One of her proudest accomplishments, according to her family, was graduating from Queens College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature in 1995 at age 66.
Her service continued with the Great Neck Historical Society, where she was treasurer for several years.
Alice Kasten, the former president of the historical society, said there was “not a mean bone” in Varlotta. She was sweet, old school and bright, Kasten said, as well as a realist who always managed to brim with optimism.
“She was always ‘great’ and that’s how she presented herself,” Kasten recalled. “She had a very, very positive outlook on life.”
Varlotta moved from Great Neck in 2015 to Jefferson’s Ferry, where she lived the last four years.
During that time she was a treasurer for the “Ladies of Leisure,” participated in its welcoming committee, helped with the “giving dolls” program for underprivileged children, and the New Construction Committee, her family said.
Varlotta also volunteered in the Country Store, was in the book club, taught mahjong and requested donations be made to the Jefferson’s Ferry Foundation for residents with financial difficulties, family members wrote.
Gerard said she was an organized woman to the very end. She had planned her 90th birthday party, for example, having already sent out invitations. And when the end was coming, Gerard said she “knew it was her time to go and she embraced it.” He then thanked her for being the best role model he could ask for.
“She had everything planned,” he said. “That was how she was.”
She is survived by her children, Gerard, David, Laura and Lynda, and her grandchildren, Michele, Richard, Carolyn, Kristin, Caroline, Christopher, Stephen and Geena.
Calling hours were on Sunday at Fairchild Funeral Chapel in Manhasset. A funeral mass was held at St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church on Monday.
Condolences were also posted on the Village of Great Neck’s Facebook page.
“We are indebted to her for her many years of public service to our village and our greater community,” the post said.
And while it hasn’t been long since her passing, Gerard Varlotta said his mother is probably on a few committees in heaven already.
“It’s only a few days and I’m sure she’s up there reorganizing all of heaven,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments from Gerard Varlotta, one of her four children.