The Way We Were: Rita Danese Taylor

The Way We Were: Rita Danese Taylor
Rita Evangeline Danese Taylor, May 2022, 100th birthday

On May 4, 2022, Rita Danese Taylor turned 100. For decades, it has been her habit to spend the entire month celebrating her birthday, and this year was no different. In late May, 180 guests gathered at Prince of Peace Parish Hall on Bennett Road for a party. A dozen people had travelled from various states to honor her with their attendance. In the weeks that followed, Rita made many phone calls and handwrote personal notes to say thank you. Gratitude is another habit of Rita’s. “I’m happy I’m still living. I thank God for each day,” she said.

Rita is a Jacksonville native who was born and raised in the Southside/Mandarin area. Her paternal grandparents left war-torn Italy in November 1885 to spare their sons, one of whom was Rita’s father, Alexander Danese, just a young boy then. On the boat ride to America, the family met up with a swindler who left them homeless and penniless in Ocala, Florida.

On that boat was another Italian family, the Ghiottos who had a young daughter named Angelina. They, too, landed in Ocala, and they settled there. But the Danese family gathered what goods they could, loaded them into wheelbarrows, and walked 85 miles to Jacksonville.

As Alexander grew, he would travel back and forth from Jacksonville to visit and date Angelina in Ocala. They eventually married there in 1898 and moved as a couple to the Jacksonville area to raise a very large family here.

Rita was born the youngest of 12 children on the second story of a house her father had built on Greenland Road in Mandarin; the area was considered Loretto at that time. It was off Old St. Augustine Road, close to the railroad and an old graveyard that’s still there, Saint Joseph Cemetery. Her dad grew vegetables out back and helped his son at the dairy on Greenland Road. St. Joseph Catholic Church is on part of that land now. Rita’s first few years of school were spent in a one-room schoolhouse nearby. Due to economic hardship at the start of the Great Depression in 1929, the Danese family did a land swap for a home farther north on St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville. That’s where Rita grew up.

Angelina Ghiotto Danese outside daughter Rita Danese Taylor’s birth home on Greenland Road, Mandarin
Angelina Ghiotto Danese outside daughter Rita Danese Taylor’s birth home on Greenland Road, Mandarin

Though her parents were from Italy, Rita never did learn to speak Italian with them. Her dad was a farmer by trade and a painter by choice. He raised vegetables and chickens in their new yard, in the space beside where Rita and her several siblings would play. He had a stall of rabbits, too. “One night, a bunch of dogs came and killed every one of them. After that, he didn’t raise rabbits anymore,” Rita said. Her mom cooked a lot, mainly spaghetti or homemade noodles. When she wasn’t in the kitchen, Rita’s mom liked to be outdoors. Angelina Danese Park at the intersection of Danese Court and St. Augustine Road is named in her memory.

Rita graduated eighth grade from the original Assumption Catholic School on Gary Street. Classes were taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine. “I liked learning, and my grades all were good,” Rita said. She’d walk home along Hendricks Avenue, and there was a corner icehouse near the railroad where she’d go skating. It’s gone now. She’d also pass City Hall and the Knights of Columbus, both located a few blocks from the public library. “It was a very long walk,” she said. It was more than two miles one way, in fact.

Sometimes, Rita’s dad would drive her to school in his old Ford. One particular day, she noticed him paying the nuns at the convent in vegetables and eggs from the Danese’s backyard as an exchange for the tuition due. On another day, when she was in 8th grade, Rita was asked by Sister Evangelistic to escort her to Gainesville. “I don’t know what she had to do there, but she asked me to go with her. I was real happy over that,” Rita said. They rode the bus there together.

Keeping within the Catholic school system, Rita completed 9th and 10th grades at St. Paul’s in Riverside when they used to include a high school curriculum. After school sometimes, she’d skate in Memorial Park. Rita transferred to the public school system in 11th grade and graduated from Landon High in 1940. “I was a Landon Lionette,” she said. She was also part of a program that allowed her to leave class at 12 noon to learn office work. She had typing and mailing duties at a local dairy product machinery company. “I just did ordinary stuff, minor office work, not too much,” she said. The stint was brief. After graduation, she was supported by her father until she married.

Rita had been dating Billy Richardson. They frequented a local dance hall on Mandarin Road, which is now a church. One night at the hall, Billy introduced Rita to his friend Guy Taylor, whom she married one year later at the old Assumption Church on Gary Street in 1943.

Mr. and Mrs. Guy Taylor, 1943 wedding
Mr. and Mrs. Guy Taylor, 1943 wedding

Guy was a member of the Navy. For a couple of years, he had been stationed in Long Beach, California, and Rita visited him there. Eventually they would have seven children together. All were born at St Vincent’s Hospital in Riverside. All seven went to Assumption Catholic School, their mom’s alma mater. The two eldest had attended Hendricks Avenue for a time. Some of them went to Bishop Kenny High School, others Englewood High.

The family lived in Baldwin, Florida, where Guy’s family lived. From there, they moved to Southside, Jacksonville to 1646 Davidson Street, off Hendricks Avenue. They joined Prince of Peace Parish, to which Rita still belongs. As their family grew, they moved to a bigger house on Luella Street off University by Memorial Hospital.

Rita Taylor and daughter Cheryl, 1949
Rita Taylor and daughter Cheryl, 1949

When the Taylors first arrived there, Luella was a dirt road with only one or two neighbors back then, and University was a simple two-lane street. They had an acre or so of property with cows and horses on it.

Guy worked as a car salesman, including for Ford and Mercury. He ended up at a Volkswagen dealership at the corner of East 8th Street and Talleyrand Avenue, which has since been demolished.

As was the way in those times, Rita didn’t work outside the home other than cultivating flowers and plants in the yard, which she thoroughly enjoyed. She was a homemaker who cooked the meals, raised the children, and made their clothes—by hand, with machine, and even embroidery. She often took her children on picnics, sometimes to Memorial Park in Riverside, the site where she used to roller skate after school years before.

Now, even at 100, Rita continues puttering with plants. She enjoys rooting them from cuttings. These days, they’re not in a flower garden in the yard but potted plants on her porch. “My children have been so good to me, and I appreciate that. But now that I’m older, they won’t let me do as much as I used to do. But I’m happy to be here in my old house still,” she said. Rita has been on Luella Street for 63 years and has witnessed much growth and expansion of the area throughout the decades.

Rita Taylor, celebrating 100 with children and spouses
Rita Taylor, celebrating 100 with children and spouses

When asked about how she takes care of herself, how she stays so strong after 100 years of life, Rita said, “My faith. I talk with God all the time. I thank Him for each day that he gives me, and He gives me one day after another.”

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Loading...