Mary A. Tortoreti, who for the last four decades was the matriarch of The Observer and who for the last 14 years served as the newspaper’s president, died Wednesday, Dec. 21, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City following a brief yet valiant fight against cancer.
She was 74.
Mrs. Tortoreti was born in 1942 in the Bronx, and spent the first few years of her life there. No matter where she went after the Bronx, she always considered herself a Bronx girl and was very proud to tell that to anyone who ever asked where she was born.
When she was 11, her family moved from the Bronx to Washington Township in Bergen County. She would go on to graduate from Westwood High School.
Following high school, Mrs. Tortoreti worked at an insurance company, but shortly after starting her job, she got married at 19 and had two children – Lisa Feorenzo, the former publisher of The Observer and Tina Feorenzo.
While she raised her children, she was a stay-at-home mom – and she absolutely loved that part of her life.
In the 1970s, as her children grew older, she took a job at a Grand Union in Washington Township and was a meat wrapper. Though she only held the job for a few years, she loved every second of it.
In 1972, the true love of her life and her second husband, Anthony Tortoreti, bought The Observer newspaper – and you could often find her somewhere in The Observer office. During that time, she began a basket-making business – and from a few customers, it eventually grew so big that she was shipping orders to different parts of New Jersey. And those items she made were all high-end.
In the early years of the Tortoretis owning The Observer, Mary penned a weekly column that appeared in the newspaper called “The Kitchen Witch.” Indeed, the column’s name was clever – but it was in no way indicative of the kind of person she was. In fact, each week, she shared recipes with readers because she had a passion for the culinary arts … something that stuck with her until the very end of her life.
She had such a love for cooking that in the latter part of the 1970s, she took courses at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.
She loved more than just cooking, though.
In fact, she loved gardening, painting, photography and music.
She loved Jimi Hendrix, Bette Midler, Sly & the Family Stone and various other classic-rock acts. But it was Bette Midler who held a special place in her heart, because her husband Tony’s song for her was Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
For many years after Mr. Tortoreti’s death in 2002, Mary still took pause any time that song came on the radio.
“She just loved that song,” daughter Lisa said. “And she loved him so very much.”
Mary and Tony were also noted for doing random things – including and especially spontaneous road trips. Some days, they’d just wake up and hop in the car and drive. They’d have no set location to visit, but they’d often wind up on Cape Cod, Nantucket and Savanah, Ga., among other places.
“They had a van and they’d just get up and go,” daughter Tina said. “She was like a human GPS, well before there were GPSs. She knew exactly how to get to places and if Tony ever offered directions that weren’t right, she’d stop and say, ‘Well, Tony, I’m not so sure that’s the right way to go.’ And without fail, with her correct directions, they’d get where they wanted to go.”
She also loved to shop.
Her son-in-law Robert P. Pezzolla, general manager of The Observer, recalled how much she loved to shop at Christmastime, especially.
“She’d go in and while the people she was with got through 10 aisles, she was still in the first,” Pezzolla said. “If she liked something, she’d buy 10 of them. One time, I remember she was on her way out of a store – can’t remember which one it was – and she comes down the ramp with not one cart, but five carts. Five!”
That number five is significant, too, because each year at Christmas, she had so many presents for her family that she’d set up five Christmas trees in her home. Five Christmas trees!
“She needed a place to put all the gifts,” Pezzolla said.
Even more, did Mary ever love to talk. Her family recounted last week how she could keep you on the phone for two straight hours, then hang up, and then, just a few minutes later, call back with tons more to talk about.
The Observer’s Kevin Canessa Jr. recounted a time when he spoke with Mary on the phone in the strangest of circumstances. But it was a magnificent conversation, albeit one that seemed like it might never end.
“I was in Hoboken, having just been to the doctor and Mary called me, as she often did, when she needed an Uber ride,” Canessa said. “By the time the chat was over, she decided she didn’t want the Uber ride. The call must have started at about noon. We talked about everything from her basket business, to her spontaneous trips with ‘My Tony.’
“As all this is happening, I’m standing in the rain, in a parking lot on Washington Ave., in Hoboken. I needed to get an Uber myself to get back to Kearny and back to the office. Our conversation ended at 2:30 p.m., I was completely soaked and by the time I got back to Kearny, the office was closed. But this was Mary – I couldn’t tell her I needed to get back to work. Because if I did, I might have missed something vitally important.
“That’s how much she loved to talk – and that’s how much her wisdom and words meant to me and to all who knew her. She was that special – and her words, that important not to miss.”
In all, the life that was Mary Tortoreti’s was one that touched so many people – from her daughters, to her family, to the people who worked for her, to the people who read her column, to every single human being with whom she came into contact.
“She never did things simple,” daughter Tina recalled. “The kind of pain she experienced in her lifetime, most would have just given up. But not mom. Mom’s pain tolerance was very strong. As we got older, she’d be the one to keep us out later than we ever wanted to be out. That’s who she was. That’s the woman who loved her children, her Tony and her Westies Sonny, Mikey and Fredo. There has never been anyone in this world like mom – and there never will be.
“She was one-of-a-kind and boy are we going to miss her.”
Mrs. Tortoreti is survived by her two daughters Lisa and Tina Feorenzo, a sister Virginia Hendricks and a son-in-law Robert P. Pezzolla.
Visiting will take place Tuesday, Dec. 27, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at the Becker Funeral Home, 219 Kinderkamack Road, Westwood. The funeral takes place Wednesday, Dec. 28, at 11:30 a.m., at Garden of Memories, 300 Soldier Hill Road, Washington Township (Bergen County). Interment will be private.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.