For years, Christmas Eve at Abe and Florence Soloveitzik’s home on Chestnut Street in Westerly was an open house for friends and family and co-workers, festive with abundant food and drink from late afternoon until midnight supper, and perhaps a bit beyond, a commingling of Jewish and Italian communities and people from throughout the town.
The annual tradition at 32 Chestnut St. commenced a few years after a most memorable Christmas Eve for the couple: their wedding in 1946, officiated by a justice of the peace in the parlor of Abe Soloveitik’s family home on Pleasant Street.
And the Christmas Eve festivities were a celebration, too, of a birthday. One hundred years ago this Christmas, on Dec. 25, 1917, Florence Paladino was born in Westerly.
Anyone venturing into Westerly Town Hall, and stopping at the clerk’s office, or just passing by, will appreciate who this formidable woman was. Florence Paladino Soloveitzik is honored, as well she should be, with a framed portrait and a plaque. She was the first professionally certified municipal clerk in Rhode Island, and was selected by the governor to be one of the state’s historical archivists. In 1970, she was named “woman of the year” by the Napatree Chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Organization.
She worked for the Town of Westerly for 42 years, virtually from the day she graduated from Westerly High School in 1935. She was serving as deputy town clerk in 1963 when her boss died. Appointed to succeed him, she ran for the post in 1964 and became the first woman to be elected to government office in the town’s history. She held the job until 1978.
“She was just a great woman, a woman of integrity, fair to everyone and left a great legacy,” said Donna L. Giordano, the current town clerk, sitting in her Town Hall office recently and reflecting on the woman for whom she once worked. Giordano’s signature, as town clerk, is on the resolution of condolence, adopted by the Westerly Town Council on June 12, 1995, acknowledging Soloveitzik, who died that April, for her character and local and statewide municipal achievements as well as her stature as a bridge player, made a life master by the American Contract Bridge League in 1975.
Abe Soloveitzik, a Westerly native and the city editor of The Westerly Sun for nearly two decades, died in June 1979 at age 68. On what would have been his 100th birthday, in October 2010, the Sun’s redoubtable Gloria Russell, wrote:
“He probably met Florence Paladino at Town Hall while making his rounds as a reporter. People say love conquers all, and Abe and Florence were living proof of that. On Christmas Eve 1946, with Abe’s friend Sports Editor Bill Cawley as best man, the couple, with differing religious and ethnic backgrounds, married.”
Charles Soloveitzik, the couple’s son and an attorney whose law offices overlooking Wilcox Park were once occupied by his uncle, Harold, brother of Abe, remembers his parents accommodating their childhood faiths and effecting a domestic détente. The other child, a daughter, Bonnie Light, lives in Springfield, Mass.
Still, December in the Soloveitzik home was, naturally enough, a multi-holiday — Hanukkah, Christmas, anniversary and, of course, Florence’s birthday, and the Christmas Eve open house perhaps the best gift for those in the couple’s sphere.
Among those who would gather were Abe’s sisters, Ella and Florence; his brothers, Harold and Sam; Florence’s sisters, Irene Lauria and Ann Vacca and their families; Florence’s brother, Dave Paladino, and family; and those from the Cawley, Dotolo, Utter, Lewis, Russell, Leibovitz, Lewiss, D’Amico, Dilorio, Federico, and other familiar Westerly families.
Mary Levcowich, active around town and sharp-witted at 90, succeeded Florence Soloveitzik as town clerk. She remembers the annual Christmas Eve celebrations beginning in the town clerk’s office vault, where the staff and other employees set out home-cooked dishes and various libations and then everyone migrating to a lower level of Town Hall for more of the same. “Then Florence would tell everyone to come to her house to celebrate Florence’s birthday, her marriage and the holiday,” she said.
“She loved playing bridge with her sisters and she loved her work as town clerk,” Mary Levcowich said. “She was intelligent and understood all the intricacies and demands of the office. She was a professional all her days. She did well for the citizens of the town. She was accepted by the town, and she was lauded by the town, lawyers and all.”
Recalling Soloveitzik’s grasp of the town charter and ordinances, of probate work and licenses, of deeds and mortgages, voters and vital statistics, Mary Levcowich matter-of-factly paid her late friend and former boss the most genuine compliment: “She probably could have replaced the town solicitor, with all she knew.”
Florence Soloveitzk’s accomplishments and reputation are a legacy her children and those who knew her honor to this day, and a testament to the fabric of the Westerly community.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.