Recalling 'countrified' Seaford

99-year-old remembers farms — and Roosevelts

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As a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, Dorothy Meinke wanted to be a nun. Instead, she eventually moved to Seaford and raised eight children. Now, 70 years later, Meinke, who celebrated her 99th birthday on March 2, can look back not only on a century of change, but on the growth of a village from a small rural community of farms and fishermen to a thriving suburb of 15,000.

When the Brooklyn native, her husband, Richard, and three young children moved to Seaford in 1949, “it was very countrified, all farms,” she recalled. After the war, she added, “You couldn’t get housing in the city. We had a friend on the Island who had a house, so we came out. We rented the house and ended up buying it.” Three generations still share the house — Meinke, her daughter, Donna Schneider, and Schneider’s three children, twin sons Chris and Eric and daughter Deanna.

With the GI Bill and thousands of returning soldiers and sailors, “You could buy a house for $500 down,” she said.

Construction had just begun on suburbs like Levittown. Seeing the landscape as it was being transformed “was wonderful, it was amazing,” she said. At the time, the area was almost entirely farmland, although farms were starting to be sold.

The neighborhood around the Meinke family home was open land. “There were a few stores along Merrick Road, and [St. William the Abbot Catholic Church] was there — the old church, not the one that’s there now.” The area had few local schools; Seaford High School, which her children ended up attending, did not open until 1956.

Out of Brooklyn

Meinke was born Dorothy Luhrs in 1920 in Brooklyn, the third of four children. The family lived on East 37th Street in the Flatbush section of the borough. They were German-Irish, but “if you got a game up of some kind, everyone came and played around the neighborhood,” she recounted. “There were Italian kids, German kids, Jewish kids.”

One of the family’s Brooklyn neighbors from a few blocks away was Richard Meinke, who would become her husband. “We played together as children,” she said, although they did not attend the same schools.

Despite her dream of becoming a nun, which she said was a typical notion for nearly every Catholic girl, “I was a little bit of a tomboy. I had a very happy childhood.”

Meinke’s father, William Luhrs, was born in the 1890s and was an electrician at a time when urban electrification was under way. “When my father was 8 years old, people would come in the evening to light the lamps,” she said. “He told people, ‘One day, all these lights will be electric.’ They laughed at him,” she said, smiling at the memory.

One of her father’s projects involved electrifying the governor’s mansion in Albany. “My father was a foreman on the project,” she said. The governor at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had recovered from polio a few years before and was looking for ways to increase his mobility.

“Eleanor Roosevelt came to the house and sat in our living room,” Meinke said. “She said, ‘Franklin wants to be able to go to the second floor [of the mansion]. Can you do something for him?’”

The “something” Luhrs came up with was the first electrically powered chair lift. He could not publicize or sell the appliance, however.

“Nobody could know about it; no one was allowed to see him in his wheelchair or take pictures” of the future president’s disability, Meinke said, so the invention had to remain a one-off. “Nobody knew until after he died that he had infantile paralysis,” she said.

Meinke attended St. Thomas Aquinas Grammar School and was a 1938 graduate of St. Brendan High School. After graduation, she went to work as an operator for Bell Telephone. “It was the first time they hired women,” she said. “I was one of the first hires, so I got promoted.”

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, “I got a telegram that said, ‘Report for duty at once,’” Meinke said. When she did so, “they put us in dormitories and wouldn’t let us go home.” The workers stayed in the dormitories for the first weeks of the war, working long shifts.

Before the war, her future husband had undergone an appendectomy that resulted in complications that left a bad scar — and kept him stateside during the war. The couple started dating in 1940, and married in 1943.

With 16 years’ difference between the oldest and youngest of their eight children, Meinke spent 34 years coaxing her brood through high school.

Richard worked as an auditor for Brooklyn Gas Co., and died in 2008, at age 89. Seven of their children are still living — four in New York and three in California.

Milestones in Meinke’s life included learning to drive at age 45 and going to work for the new Macy’s department store in Massapequa when it opened in 1975, when she was 55. By that time the children were all nearly grown, and she was looking for something to keep her busy.

Still hale, healthy, vigorous and sharp, Meinke is the only member of her family to have reached such a venerable age. Her grandparents died relatively young, she said. Besides her husband, only her German-born grandmother, Sophie, lived into her 80s.

Asked to share the secrets of her longevity, she quickly replied “Chocolate” with mock seriousness. Whether or not that was responsible, a warm, supportive family environment is clearly a factor. “We’re all enormously proud of her,” daughter Donna said. “We love living with her,” grandson Eric added.

It is clear that the feeling is mutual. “I’ve had a very good life, a very happy life, with a wonderful family,” Meinke said. In her long life, she has learned to find the extraordinary in the everyday. With a sizable dose of chocolate.