Centenarian: I've been so blessed

WESTVILLE — DeAnna "Dee" Latoz thought only a few people would show up for her mother's birthday open house on Tuesday.

After all, most of Mollie Latoz's friends as well as her long-time customers are gone. But a steady stream of well-wishers came over two hours to greet Mollie on her 100th birthday.

"She looks great. What are you feeding her?" one visitor, Linda Chernausky, a retired elementary school teacher, asked members of the Latoz family.

The centennial meet-and-greet took place in a small space in the back of Latoz Hardware in Westville, at the bottom of the stairway that leads to the upstairs apartment where Mollie and Dee live.

The birthday girl sat in a wheelchair, wearing hot pink slippers on her feet and a small tiara on her head.

"I'm fine. I'm always fine. I've been so blessed," she told The News-Gazette.

"It's nice to see people. Sometimes I still know some, and sometimes I get a little confused until they tell me who they are. But I do enjoy people."

Among those who dropped by with cards and bouquets were many longtime Westville residents who have shopped at Latoz Hardware since Mollie and her husband, Tony, opened it on Aug. 1, 1946.

Tony Latoz died in 1988. But the downtown store, a Westville institution, has remained family-owned. And it's one of the few places in the area that stocks pizzelle, or waffle-cookie, irons - many of Westville's earliest residents were immigrants from Europe who use the irons to turn out pizzelle, particularly at Christmas time.

After Tony Latoz died Mollie and their  two children, Vic and Dee, continued to run the store. The strong-willed -- she rules with an iron fist and a smile, one grandchild noted  -- worked  until shortly before she turned 96. She retired then, due to ill health, mainly congestive heart failure.

"She keeps us all in line — even from upstairs," Vic joked.

Among other Latoz family members now working at the store on Illinois 1 are two of Mollie's four great-grandchildren, McKenzie McFadden, 16, and her brother, Ryne, 14, both of Westville.

Mollie has three grandchildren; they all came for her 100th too: Chris Latoz of Wadsworth, Becky Porter of Ballwin, Mo. and Amy McFadden of Westville.

"Three or four years ago I would have never thought she'd hit 100," Chris, a chemist, said as he and his sister, Becky, watched people greet his grandmother. "Just think of the things she's seen over 100 years."

Besides being a landmark birthday, Tuesday marked the first day in four years that Mollie (born Tocco; her father came to Wesville from Italy to work the area coal mines) Latoz left her apartment, where she is confined most of the time to a hospital bed.

"She had her mind made up she was coming down," said Chris Latoz. "So we got her down here. She was adamant about getting down here."

After the open house ended, the family gave their matriarch a tour of the hardware store.

"She was pleased with how everything looked and didn't have any complaints," Dee said.

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