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Little Neck native celebrates 100th birthday

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“There were no houses on this side,” she said, gesturing toward the long rows of modern homes on Van Zandt Avenue, where she lives. “There were...

By Kathianne Boniello

When Helen Ducey looks around her Little Neck neighborhood, she does not see the same thing as the rest of us.

“There were no houses on this side,” she said, gesturing toward the long rows of modern homes on Van Zandt Avenue, where she lives. “There were all fields — no roads, no Horace Harding [Expressway]. All woods.

“Sleigh riding here was wonderful,” said Ducey, who remembers when nearby Overbrook Street was actually a brook and when an Indian family lived at the now construction-clogged intersection of Marathon Parkway and the Long Island Expressway.

With her 100th birthday approaching on March 10, Ducey is a living history of an ever-changing pocket of suburbia tucked into the most northeastern corner of the city.

Reflecting on her surroundings in an interview last week, the Little Neck native’s sharp memory painted a picture of a decidedly rural community at a time in which most residents had to travel to Flushing for schools, work and basic services.

“Everyone had to go to Flushing for everything,” she said.

Today’s expressways, parkways, buses and major roads that make Little Neck accessible to the city’s transportation network did not exist nor did the area’s schools or businesses. Dominated by fields, farms and some estates, the community was filled with wide open spaces.

Born on March 10, 1901 near what is now PS 94 on Little Neck Parkway, Helen was the oldest of eight children and grew up with her family on a large farm on Van Zandt Avenue. Her house, built next door to her parents’ home, stands on the land that was part of the farm.

In the pre-automobile era, her father operated a horse-drawn coach for a real estate office on the corner of Northern Boulevard and Douglaston Parkway, meeting prospective land buyers at the Little Neck railroad station and giving them tours of available properties. To make extra money, Ducey said, her father gave rides to wealthy Douglas Manor resident who needed to get to the railroad.

Ducey walked a mile to school in what is now Great Neck before PS 94 was built and attended Flushing High School because it was the only high school in the area.

Childhood days were spent tending to her family’s farm animals, selling milk for six cents a quart throughout the neighborhood and working at nearby farms picking beans for 25 cents a bushel.

Working for a telephone company in Flushing after high school, Ducey would walk a mile to and from the Little Neck train station to travel to work.

It was in Flushing that she met her husband, William Ducey, who worked for Con Edison. They were married in 1922 at St. Anastasia’s Church in Douglaston.

Ducey smilingly remembers spending every Saturday night at dances at Fort Totten in Bayside during World War I and at the local firehouse on the corner of Northern Boulevard and Marathon Parkway, where there is now a McDonalds.

“There was a dance every Saturday night,” she said. “We did lots of dances. [My husband] was a very good dancer.”

The Duceys initially lived in an apartment in Flushing but eventually moved next door to Helen’s parents in Little Neck in the 1960s. After her only son, William, turned 7, Helen Ducey worked as an aide at Flushing High School. Later on, Ducey served 15 years in Hazeltine’s, an aerospace company on Little Neck Parkway.

After her husband died in 1965, Helen Ducey stayed active babysitting for neighborhood children when she was in her 80s.

Physically, Ducey said she needs a walker to get around because of arthritis and has a home aide visit her three times a week since her hands have been crippled by rheumatoid arthritis.

Ducey plans to celebrate her milestone birthday with her four grandchildren and five great grandchildren, she said. Her son died last month.

With her 100th birthday only days away, Ducey — who loves to read, watch soap operas and laugh a lot — said she has no magic secret for longevity.

“I always kept doing things, taking chances and stuff because I didn’t think I’d be here,” said Ducey, who said she makes sure to exercise everyday.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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