Remembering Flora Folio
Updated: Jan 8
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Photos provided by Dana and Toni Lee Ponti
Photo credit for Football photo: Bobby Cole
For many, the name Flora Folio, brings back memories of the Rutherford High School Guidance Department, the Woman’s Club of Rutherford, the 55 Kip Center, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Flora was someone who left a lasting impression on the town of Rutherford that she called home for sixty-two years. Sadly, just days before her 99th birthday, Flora passed away on December 3, 2020. This is Rutherford spoke with Flora’s daughter Toni Lee Ponti (Folio) about Flora’s remarkable life.
TIR: Tell us more about Flora’s unique childhood.
Toni Lee Ponti: My mom (Flora) was one of ten children. Her parents immigrated here from Italy. Her mother had a sister, Flora, who was not able to have children. When my mother, also named Flora, was 4 years old, Aunt Flora asked that my mother come to visit in West Virginia for the summer months. My grandparents said yes, and she stayed there most of her life, except when she would return home to Ridgefield, NJ annually, to the family home, to join her siblings for a few months, always to return to Clarksburg, WV to live with Aunt Flora and Uncle Virgil. She was raised as an only child. When Aunt Flora was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, mom became her caregiver along with Uncle Virgil.
TIR: After high school, did Flora attend college?
TP: Mom was accepted to Jersey City State Teachers College but never enrolled due to circumstances beyond her control. Unfortunately, her Dad did not believe it was important for women to attend college. She told me she was devastated and that was her first heartbreak in life. Simultaneously, she received a letter from a friend in WV telling her how lonely and unhappy Aunt Flora had been since she left to come back to NJ. My Mom turned around and went back to her home in WV, where she attended Business College. She took a job with Montgomery Ward, where she worked in their business department until she married Coach Tony Folio. My brother Michael Ross and I were born in Clarksburg, WV.
TIR: Once your mother moved to Rutherford, NJ where her husband was offered a job as a football coach at Rutherford High School, how did her life change?
TP: My mother's brothers were constantly looking for a way to get little Flora and her family back to NJ, where they felt the opportunities for "Coach" would prove to be more lucrative. They sent a job posting to my Dad about a position opening up in Rutherford, NJ, for a teacher and a Coach. Dad was offered the position, and after several months, Mom found our house on 21 Raymond Avenue, where we grew up, and she lived out her years. Mom did not return to work until Michael began Junior High School and would no longer be home for lunch. She started out in the offices in the high school on a substitute basis, and eventually took a full-time position as a secretary in the Guidance office. Mom was a vital part of the high school offices for over 25 years. She continued to work after Coach retired and even after he passed away in 1986.
There are many stories about Mom that reverberated throughout the halls of the high school. At one point, the entire Folio family was at Rutherford High School on a daily basis. The standing joke would be that the Principal could literally make an announcement something like "Will the Folio Family please report to the Main office?" But honestly, it wasn't always easy growing up with your parents watching and knowing, but friends always thought it was great, especially those in need of someone to get them out of a little trouble. I received a message from a classmate after Mom passed, and he put it so very well: There was a certain uniqueness to RHS staff who were parents of our peers. They commanded appropriate respect but somehow affected a different perspective, a little like parents. They could (and would) cut you a little slack for the myriad stupid stunts we got caught for, and in exchange, it was always an unspoken understanding that you needed to act better. Mrs. Folio was exemplary in that regard--a very nice lady who really saw us for our best and wanted that for us. How wonderfully unique and supportive.
Mom was very involved in the community. She was an active member of the Rutherford Woman's Club for about 65 years. She served in various capacities, but one of her favorites was that of Membership. She had a special quality that allowed her to make people feel most welcome; she was a fine example of living by the "Golden Rule". Flora was included in the NJ State Federation of the Woman's Club Honor Roll for her years of service. She was a devout Catholic and a member of the Rosary Altar Society at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church. In later years, she was a daily participant at 55 Kip Center, the Senior Center in Rutherford, as well as a member of the Golden Age Club. Mom was also an avid reader and a member of the book club offered through the Rutherford Public Library.
Flora's niece, Leslie Beck, told TIR, "Living nearby, I saw her often, though perhaps not as often as she would like. She was always the last to leave a party - in her later years after her husband passed away my family would often be the ones to take her to family functions, etc. because we lived so close. We would joke that we needed to let her know an hour in advance that we were leaving because it took her so long to say good-bye to everyone! She was the kindest person I ever knew. I will miss her terribly."
Mrs. Barbara Jones, retired Director Guidance Counselor at Rutherford High School, told TIR, "Mrs. Folio was the epitome of a devoted and loyal team worker and friend. While she was totally devoted to her family she considered everyone at RHS her second family. We had the pleasure of working together for many years most of which took place in the guidance department. While very demure in stature she commanded an audience with grace and knowledge. When she presented the scholarship in her late husband Tony Folio's name at the Senior Awards Breakfast she would praise the efforts of the class and the accomplishments of the scholarship recipient while still trying to instill a little background and history. A pin drop could be heard."
Mr. Bill Bauman, Principal of RHS from 1973-2000, told TIR, “The success of any organization, be it a business corporation, a Wendy’s, a not for profit hospital or even a place of worship, is contingent upon the people who staff it. Rutherford High School was recognized as a National School of Excellence which couldn’t have happened without a dedicated, competent, and caring group of individuals. Flora was that kind of person. Daily interaction with high school students can be a challenge. Guided by a mother’s instinct, Flora knew how to meet that challenge. Small in stature but big of heart with a wonderful sense of humor and a calm demeanor, Flora made a huge contribution to our high school.”
TIR: What are some special memories you will always have of your mother?
TP: My Dad, Tony, was the Football Coach at RHS for about 25 years. My Mom never missed a game. She was a small woman, only 5 foot nothing. She was the teams' (and my Dad's) biggest fan. Her voice could be heard cheering/yelling over the band playing, over the noise of the crowd, and most embarrassing, when there was no other noise or distractions on the field. Football players and friends would run into me growing up and be sure to tell me they heard my Mom cheering and screaming above all else as they were in the heat of the game (laughs).
Patti Folio, the wife of Flora's late son, Michael, shared one of her favorite memories of her mother-in-law, "I started dating Mike at age 17-she said it was ok for us to date even though I wasn’t Italian because at least I was Catholic and she knew my mother! So there I was, a shy teenager, sitting at her kitchen table feeling a bit overwhelmed by this boisterous Italian family and Flora asking “Are you hungry?” I very quickly learned that YES was the only answer and to Flora...FOOD=LOVE."
"When my family moved from Lyndhurst to Rutherford in 1970, Flora was my "guardian angel" as I adjusted to a new (and much larger) school. I went from a small grammar school where girls were still not allowed to wear pants, to a Jr./Sr. High School where there was no dress code whatsoever! As a result, just by the way, I dressed for school I stood out like a "sore thumb". Flora was able to persuade my parents to let me "adjust" the way I dressed for school to fit in a bit more. She was also a great advocate for me within the Rutherford school system. I don't know all the details, but I am sure she was the one who arranged for me to go to summer school (a horrible experience!) to get "caught up" on math in order to be placed in the advanced math class at Rutherford. Although I was her niece, I have no doubt that she would have gone out of her way to do something similar for other new students at the Jr/Sr High school," explained Flora's niece, Leslie Beck.
"While Flora's devotion to her position as RHS guidance secretary was admirable my fondest memories are the personal ones. Always a lady, always ready to listen, always patient, always kind and loyal are the memories I keep at the forefront of our friendship," explained Barbara Jones.
TIR: How do you hope your Mom will be remembered?
TP: Mom was no stranger to heartache and loss. In her 99 years here on Earth, she lost all her brothers and sisters, as well as those on her husband's side. Coach Folio passed in 1986 when Mom was 64 years old. She lost her son Michael Ross in June 2018, her son-in-law, Fred Ponti in January 2019. Her faith was a constant source of strength throughout, and she took her role as Matriarch most seriously, as there are countless nieces and nephews with children and grandchildren to whom she felt a strong familial responsibility. Mom was the ultimate "lady", (except maybe when she yelled like a lunatic at the football games), always using proper language and etiquette. Mom was never a complainer, regardless of the role she played as a working wife and mother, caregiver, or a patient herself. I am most grateful that her granddaughters were able to have her around for many years. Mom so loved the town of Rutherford, the perfect little community in which she lived, worked, and raised her family. She left Rutherford just as she planned, in her own home on 21 Raymond Avenue surrounded by family.