WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.

Donna Rigali dies at 94

Navy veteran guided libraries in both Wantagh and Seaford

Posted

Donna Larrabee Rigali was there at the very start of the Seaford Public Library in 1956. For her master’s thesis in 1968, she chronicled her experiences helping to get the library off the ground as the first chair of the Friends of Seaford Library.

According to Rigali’s history, the community’s earliest library was housed in a temporary location at the Seaford Avenue School in the 1940s. As the community became more populous in the 1950s, residents called for a permanent public library. As head of the West Seaford Civic Association, Rigali became chairwoman of a library advisory committee that later became Friends of the Seaford Library.

Rigali, a World War II Navy veteran, was also a longtime reference librarian at the Wantagh Public Library. She died on May 30, at age 94.

Raised and educated in Old Greenwich, Conn., Larrabee wrote for her high school paper and was a member of the school’s debate team. She attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania before enlisting in the Navy. She served stateside during World War II as a chief yeoman for two and a half years, ending up at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where she was involved in recruiting ef-forts and war bond drives.

There she met her future husband, Ensign Henry A. Rigali, who had recently returned from serving in the Pacific aboard the USS California. After her discharge, Larrabee returned to her studies, and she and Rigali married in 1947. She graduated from Swarthmore a year later, and they soon settled in Seaford, where they raised five children.

They moved into a newly built house on Alan Drive in 1951, where Rigali lived until four years ago. Henry died in 2008, and in 2015, Donna moved to New Hampshire to be closer to their daughter Kathy Amar.

Rigali was active in civic, political and professional organizations, including the Seaford PTA, American Legion and Nassau County Library Association, which advocates for libraries across the county.

Amar said that her mother “was pretty, and she was fashionable.” She and Henry were heavily involved in the Nassau County Democratic Committee. Henry served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1960 and 1964, and in 1976, Donna chaired the Wantagh Bicentennial Committee, giving talks to various church groups about the “valiant women of Long Island during the Revolutionary War.”

Amar said her older siblings remember their parents hosting local Election Night parties in their tiny house in the 1950s. “They’d put brown paper on the wall in the living room and sketch out the districts,” Amar said. Throughout the night, “they’d get phone calls with election results and tally up the votes.”

One of Rigali’s favorite memories was of being in the crowd at Madison Square Garden, at the fundraising gala for the Democratic Party in 1962 at which Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday to You” to President John F. Kennedy. Amar remembered her mother commenting on the infamous skin-tight, sequined dress that Monroe wore, saying they were close enough to her that “you couldn’t miss a curve in that dress.”

At age 42, when her youngest son started kindergarten, Rigali returned to school, earning a master’s degree in library science from C.W. Post.

Kathy was 6 or 7 at the time. “I remember going to bed, and she’d be at the dinner table typing her term paper,” Amar said. “I’d get up in the morning, and she’d still be sitting at the table, typing her term paper.”

Rigali enjoyed a 35-year career as a librarian at the Wantagh Library, ultimately serving as head of Adult Reference Services. She got her children involved in the library, too. Amar remembered coverage in the Herald-Citizen of the Wantagh Library’s move to its permanent location, with a photo of her and her brother carrying books. Her older brother and sister were both pages at the Seaford Public Library as teenagers.

Frank McKenna, the Seaford Library director, said that Rigali inspired him. “Mrs. Rigali was a librarian par excellence who would dig deep to find the answer to any question asked of her — the more obscure and arcane the query, the better,” McKenna said. “She was a true researcher and dedicated library professional.”

Rigali worked at the Wantagh Library until 2003. “She worked until she was 79, and she would have worked longer,” Amar said. “She had an indomitable spirit.”

Amar said that her mother lost sight in one eye at age 77 from temporal arteritis, which affects the blood supply to the head and brain. Macular degeneration took the sight from her other eye two years later, which hastened her retirement.

“It was the cruelest irony for my mom,” Amar said. “For someone who loved reading, was a voracious reader her whole life, to lose her sight to macular degeneration.”

Rigali read as long as she could, ultimately using a high-powered magnifier. Until the last six months of her life, she listened to books on tape. Amar added that her mother instilled in her children her love of reading and learning.

Her hobbies included traveling with her husband, sewing and needlework, playing the piano and badminton — a sport she played from her earliest years. As a teenager, she won several regional championships, and she played all four years at Swarthmore, where she was the team captain.

She is survived by a sister, Elizabeth Nelson, of Arlington, Va.; her children, Carol Locke and her husband, Doug, of Brookdale, Calif.; James Rigali and his wife, Patricia, of Seattle; Clare Fennessy and her husband, Brian, of Hernando, Fla.; Amar and her husband, Matt, of Pembroke, N.H.; and John Rigali, of Wantagh. She is also survived by four grandsons, Jesse Locke; and Ben, Kristopher and William Amar; and two great-grandsons, Tate and Jax Locke.

Services were held at the Charles Schmidt Funeral Home in Seaford on June 6 and 7, followed by burial in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale. The family asked that donations in Rigali’s memory be made to the Association for the Blind.