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Determination defined the Montagna family

Madera County Historical Society

Leone Montagna, father of Mario Montagna.


When I read in The Tribune that Mario Montagna departed this life to join his wife, Jeanette, my mind jumped back to a time over a decade ago when I was interviewing them about their lives in Madera. It was pure elixir; I have it all recorded. I wish I could play it for you. The best I can do is to share some of the highlights that stuck with me. The story began with Mario’s parents.

It took determination for Leone and Assunata Montagna to leave their native Italy and set out for America in 1921. It took determination, once they got here, for them to work for 7 years to pay for their passage. It took determination to press on after rain ruined their first raisin crop, and it took determination to continue after Leone broke his arm in an automobile accident and was laid up for a year.

No doubt about it, the Montagnas had determination, and it is a good thing. Had it not been so, their son, Mario would not have had their example, and that could have cost him the love of his life, for it took real determination for this son of Italian immigrants to capture his bride.

Having been born in Madera in 1933, Mario was the baby of the family. He grew up in the Arcola District, and began school there. When Arcola burned to the ground, Mario and his classmates were transferred to the bus shed at Ripperdan School, until Arcola could be rebuilt.

Mario graduated from Arcola School and went on to Madera High, but before he did, he caught the eye of a girl three years his junior. Little did he know that Jeanette Paolinelli had as much determination as he did, and that she would chase him until he eventually caught her.

Jeanette had been born in 1936 and lived with her family on Avenue 11, not far from the Montagnas. The two families spent a considerable amount of time together, so it wasn’t as if the two youngsters met for the first time in school. It’s just that by the time Jeanette was in the 6th grade, she began to see her friend in a little different light.

By the time Jeanette enrolled in Madera High, Mario had already been there a couple of years, and that is when he began to notice her. She was 15 when Cupid shot his arrow at Mario, and he sat down to compose a letter. He wanted Jeanette as his steady girlfriend. He must have been certain that she would consent, but he had reckoned without her mother and father. The young lady’s parents put their feet down, and she had to inform her would-be suitor, “No dice.” Clearly this was going to take some determination.

The young couple cooled their heels for a few months until finally her parents gave in and allowed them to date, but they had to be chaperoned by her younger brother. A suitor with less determination might have given up, but not Mario. Everywhere the couple went, the little brother was sure to follow. Finally, after a year of dating, Mario’s determination paid off, and he and Jeanette were allowed to date without a chaperone, but not for long. Uncle Sam had other ideas.

Mario was drafted into the military in December 1955 and went away to boot camp. On his first leave, he hurried back to Madera, standing tall in his new uniform, and made a beeline to see Jeanette. Alas, when she opened the door, he got a cold reception; an old beau had made use of the time that Mario was away. Clearly, this was going to take determination.

It wasn’t long after the young sailor returned to his base that he began to receive letters from Jeanette, indicating that the old boyfriend was out of the picture, and the way was now open for them to rekindle their feelings of affection. In 1957, Mario, having been discharged, was now free to pursue Jeanette in earnest, but it would still take determination.

It didn’t take long for the couple to come to an “understanding.” Marriage was in their future; it just took the right moment to make it official. Mario had to propose, which took determination.

He decided to purchase the ring before he popped the question. In fact, he let the ring do the talking. Before driving to Jeanette’s and walking up to the door, he simply placed the ring, still in the box, on the seat of the car. When they returned to the auto, she saw it and excitedly opened the box. Mario was glowing, but his euphoria was quickly dampened — no, drowned — by Jeanette’s reaction. She didn’t like the ring!

In the first place, it was yellow gold; she wanted white. In the second place, the diamond was too small. Mario would have to do much better than that, and he did. After all, he had determination. He went to the jewelry store and with the help of the jeweler (who had received a visit from Jeanette) he chose a ring that came closer to meeting Jeanette’s expectation.

On April 13, 1958, Jeanette and Mario were married in Madera at St. Joachim’s Church. They then went on their honeymoon, courtesy of Oberti Olives, for whom Jeanette worked. That $75 dollar gift bought them four days in Las Vegas, complete with gambling and floor shows (she came back $7 to the good, while his winnings totaled $3).

Jeanette and Mario Montagna set up housekeeping in Madera. She continued working for Oberti Olives, and he went into lumber sales until his retirement. In the meantime, they became the parents of three children, Gina, Susan and Phillip. Their family grew to include grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Looking back on their lives back then, the Montagnas acknowledged that not everything came up roses, but then it seldom does for any couple. What was always present for them, however, was a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned determination — the kind their parents and grandparents brought to America and gave to them.

The Montagnas lived out that lesson well.


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