When Rose Occhialino’s husband Mario died from stomach cancer in 1989, she realized she needed a change. Nothing could replace Mario, of course. Married 48 years with two sons, the couple had forged a domestic life so idyllic that, in 1951, it won the family a six-page profile in Ladies’ Home Journal. But Occhialino was a practical woman, always had been. Even as she grieved, she knew she needed new people to fret over, new tasks to attend to, if she was to ever survive widowhood.
That she would find that new direction as a volunteer proofreader at the Culinary Institute seemed the unlikeliest of outcomes. Yet every weekday morning for 20 years (barring illness or visits to family), the 88-year-old Poughkeepsie resident has driven to the Hyde Park campus to pore over anything the college hands her — cookbooks, scholarly articles, press releases — for faulty spelling and grammar. She happily performs the task, day after day, for nothing more than a free lunch. “Little by little,” she says, “I realized this was going to be my life.”
Occhialino’s long stint at the Culinary Institute began only a few weeks after Mario died, when she read in the paper that Julia Child was to speak at a CIA commencement ceremony. She called and asked a press person at the school if she could attend, and somehow ended up with a spot at a table with school administrators. To keep up conversation, Occhialino asked the man seated next to her, the school’s financial officer, what the college did with its extra food. “He said, ‘Well, the faculty, staff, and students eat it,’ ” she says. “Without even thinking about it, I said, ‘I’ll be glad to work for nothing if you give me a meal on the day that I work.’ Well, that was an offer they couldn’t refuse.”
Rose, husband Mario, and sons spend some quality family time together for a 1951 Ladies’ Home Journal article
It is a love of words, not fine cuisine, that keeps Occhialino coming back every day. (She does admit the world-class lunches aren’t exactly a deterrence.) For more than 30 years, she worked as a part-time court reporter in Poughkeepsie, and to this day earns money proofreading other reporters’ transcripts. She has written 80 personal pieces for the local PennySaver, and won awards each of the last two years for her entries in the Adriance Memorial Library’s annual essay contest. The best illustration of Occhialino’s passion for the written word, however, occurred on a visit to her doctor’s office decades ago. A thief burst into the waiting room, held her at knife point, and snatched her purse. “You can take my money,” she warned him, “but don’t take my library card.”
Such devotion serves her copyediting well. “I love correcting other people’s mistakes. I really do,” she says. “When I see something in the newspaper that’s wrong, I have to resist the impulse to call the editor.” Last year, she proofread her first textbook, the 350-page The Kitchen Pro Series: Guide to Fish and Seafood Identification, Fabrication, and Utilization by CIA chef Mark Ainsworth. The professor highlighted Occhialino’s contributions to the book in the acknowledgments section: “Her constant enthusiasm, focus, and attention to detail can be found swimming through every page like a school of invisible needlefish.”
Today, Occhialino is a bit of an on-campus celebrity: Everyone from the janitor to CIA president Tim Ryan (who asked Occhialino to proofread his dissertation) greets her warmly whenever they pass her customary work spot, a couch in a second-floor hallway in the admissions building. And she has no plans to vacate that seat, or those relationships she’s built, any time soon. “This has been the most fascinating part of my widowed life,” she says. “The very best thing I ever did.”