DANBURY – During her 106 years on earth, Mary Alice “Mae” (Durkin) Ryer has worn many hats. She has worked in the offices of a hat factory in Danbury, raised two children, spoiled three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and served as a faithful parishioner, first at St. Patrick and later St. Joseph parishes in Danbury. And for 45 years, she wore the starched white nursing cap that she earned from St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing.
Mrs. Ryer is an alumna of the 1931 class and is believed to be the oldest living graduate of that nursing school, which closed in 1997.
“I remember there were a lot of girls from Waterbury in my class,” she said during an interview at Hancock Hall nursing home, where she lives. “I got to be good friends with many of them,” she added.
When she was born, on Feb. 6, 1907, the first Model T Ford had not yet rolled off the assembly line. Civil War veterans were marching in parades, but World War I and World War II had not yet begun. Mark Twain was bragging about living past the age of 70, saying you couldn’t reach old age by another person’s road.
Mrs. Ryer’s road has included daily prayer, daily Mass for years, a love of family, an unselfish nature, many friends, exercise, a passion for nursing and reading and a glass of sherry every day at 4 p.m., according to her daughter, Mary Ellen Ryer.
“The nuns were wonderful teachers, wonderful teachers,” the retired nurse said of her nursing school days. She remembers one of them was Mother Ann Valencia, founder (in 1897) of St. Francis Hospital and superintendent of the school. Mother Valencia signed her diploma a couple of lines under the signature of Hartford Bishop John J. Nilan.
“My mother was treasurer of her class,” said her daughter, pointing to the name Mae Alice Durkin on the front of the commencement program.
“When she graduated from high school, before she went to nursing school, she worked in an office in one of the Danbury hat factories, to save money to go to nursing school,” Miss Ryer said. Ironically, she returned indirectly to the hat industry after graduation.
“When I worked private duty later, I nursed for the McLachlans,” Mrs. Ryer said. Harry McLachlan owned the McLachlan Hat Factory, one of the last of Danbury’s famous hat factories.
While in Hartford, she lived in a house with five or six other students and paid rent to a man named Mr. Burns, she said. “The house we lived in, we were told we had to keep it clean,” she recalled. When they weren’t studying, they frequently visited a nearby ice cream shop, she said.
After graduation, on June 2, 1931, she faced a dilemma. “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to stay there. It was a debate whether I would stay there or come back to Danbury, but I decided to come back home. I was ready to come home,” she said.
She married Bert F. Ryer, who has since died, and they had a son, David, and a daughter, Mary Ellen.
“She belongs to St. Joseph Parish in Danbury now, and Father Franklin comes every month and says Mass,” her daughter said. Father David W. Franklin is a parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish on Robinson Avenue.
“My mother receives Communion at least twice a week, sometimes three times,” Miss Ryer said. When Father Franklin doesn’t bring Communion, one of two eucharistic ministers brings it.
“They are taking good care of me here,” Mrs. Ryer said as she prepared to have her picture taken for this article. "But I’m too old to have all these pictures taken. I’m so old. Cheese.”