Dancing Through Life: Terry McLaughlin

Terry McLaughlin. Photo by Kit DeFever.

By Catherine Davis, Editorial Assistant
August / September 2012

Ninety-one years old and still as vivacious as ever, Irish American Teresa McLaughlin shares her life story and her secrets to living well.

The second installment in a new series on inspiring Irish-American seniors.

Teresa “Terry” McLaughlin is doing something right. At 91, she receives frequent reminders that she’s still a man magnet, but it would be truer to say simply that she is magnetic; no qualifiers necessary. Maybe it’s the subtle way she has of smiling. Maybe it’s that she radiates an aura of inner peace and joy, as so many strangers-from-across-the-room have sworn to her she does. Or, who knows, maybe it’s just that she dresses well. Whatever the reason, this former professional dancer and current great-grandmother of eight is – like the earthy, golden hue she’s worn for her visit to Irish America – unassuming, but only at first.

Born on May 3, 1921, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn to Catholic parents, Terry Carl always had a confidence about her. The youngest of five, she quickly took on the role of entertainer. “When I was a little girl, they used to call me Tootsie,” she says, smiling. “I used to imitate Charlie Chaplin, with my father’s derby. I’d come downstairs with the cane and everything, make my mother laugh.” Her mother, Elizabeth Bridgette O’Connor, encouraged her, paying for lessons in tap and Irish step dancing. Elizabeth had distant roots stretching back to a town called Greysteel in Faughanvale, Co Derry, where the O’Connor family once owned a pub and general store. “As a kid, my mother had ideas of me going places,” Terry explains. But her mother wasn’t the only one dreaming big – Terry, too, had her sights set high, only her goals were a bit more specific. “I’m going to be a professional dancer and have ten children,” she would tell her friends in Brooklyn. It turns out Terry wasn’t imagining, so much as she was prophesying.

She auditioned for Earl Lindsay right out of high school, and earned a spot in his review. At just 18 years old, Terry was living her dream as a  professional dancer, performing at the Lotus Club in Washington, DC. For two years, she continued to perform with Lindsay’s review. But during a visit home for rehearsals, she discovered that her father, William, who worked for the Daily News, was sick with worry about her. “He didn’t want to tell me. He wanted me to continue with what I wanted to do,” she explains. “He used to call me his ‘pet.’ I was his baby.” But after seeing what her being away was doing to him, Terry felt she couldn’t in good conscience continue  with a lifestyle that would take her so far away from her family. She traded in her career as a dancer for a job in bookkeeping at Grace Line (part of W. R. Grace & Co). “I used to meet [Peter Grace] at the water machine on the seventh floor!” she exclaims, then laughs, “Oh, I had a lot of fun.”

Terry was 25 when she and two of her friends, on their way home from a bridal shower, stopped in at a local pub for a beer. There, an embarrassing mishap involving inadequately labeled restroom doors resulted in a chance meeting between Terry and Navy vet Vincent McLaughlin – whom she would marry just six months later. He and his two friends joined the women for a drink, and “There was just something about him, a kindness,” she says, to which she was drawn. As fate would have it, Terry’s  friends paired off with, and also eventually married, Vincent’s companions.

A widower with a three-year-old daughter, Vincent offered Terry a considerably different life to the one she had been leading. Vincent (whose great-uncle, Hugh McLaughlin, was a politician, and played an important role in the creation of Prospect Park and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge) was also from Brooklyn, and that’s where the newlyweds stayed for their first several years of marriage. However, soon after the couple’s third child was born, the McLaughlins, now with four young children, moved to a farm in Waterford, Connecticut.

So, in her early 30’s, this fashionable young woman from Brooklyn was raising young children in a country house with only cows and chickens for company; the nearest neighbor over a mile away.

Like her mother, Terry encouraged her children to express themselves creatively. Once a week, she and the kids would perform a Talent Night for Vincent, who worked as a traveling salesman and was home only on weekends.

How did she keep from going stir crazy? “Oh, I’d talk to the hens!” she replies. Perhaps the real answer, then, is that she didn’t keep from going stir crazy. “One morning, I went into the coop and saw an egg lying there, and this hen was up walking around. I said, ‘Get over there, you’re supposed to be sitting on that egg,’ and so help me, it went over – sat down on the egg!” Terry chuckles, “I used to have more fun with them.”

In fact, there were so many hens on Vincent and Terry’s farm that she decided to make a small side-business selling eggs. “I put up a sign on the trellis, ‘60 cents a dozen.’ And I’d ask them to please bring back their boxes, because you know, I didn’t have a lot of boxes. And they would. When my husband came home, he was surprised.”

Suddenly Terry’s story begins to sound oddly familiar: Early show business aspirations. Comical accidents. Living-room variety shows. A young family from New York City moving to a farm in Connecticut.  The mother scheming to sell eggs, her husband in the dark about it. All this happened on I Love Lucy! And, hold on, didn’t Lucy once dress up as Charlie Chaplin, too?

Terry concedes to a measure of resemblance between her own life and that of a certain Lucille Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo. Of course, there are differences. Her husband was not from Cuba. And Terry, unlike the fictional Lucy, came to confront a kind of adversity that would have felt very much out of place on the light-hearted sitcom.

In 1960, the couple moved to a  larger house in Merrick, Long Island, to accommodate their growing family. But in 1964, just six months after their tenth child was born, Vincent went into the hospital for an operation, and died from an overdose of anesthesia. Suddenly a 42-year-old widow with ten children to raise on her own, Terry found herself “in a daze.” For a year I couldn’t go up to the bedroom. I slept on the couch. Never would I have made it without my faith. I prayed, ‘I can’t do it alone,’” she reflects.“But, you know, no matter how bad situations are, you get through them.”

Vincent died not long after President Kennedy was assassinated, and Terry looked to Jackie Kennedy for strength and inspiration. Terry made her bed every morning, and did her best to make sure all her children were taken care of. As if the new economic strain was not enough of a challenge, Terry also faced the overwhelming concern over how she could protect her many children.

One afternoon, she was alone with just her youngest child and one of her teenage sons who was sick with the flu when an intruder forced his way into their home with a gun. The man told her to get on the floor, and instead of complying, “I said, ‘No,’” she explains rather matter-of-factly. “And I fought him, I fought him. I fought him because I had just lost my husband. And what ran through my head was, ‘My children will be orphans.’ And I fought, I just fought.”

Police told her she had done the right  thing, that the man was not expecting her to put up a struggle, and got frightened when she did. “My God, Terry,” her friend and neighbor, Ed, said after reading about the incident, “I’d never fight a gun.” To this day, she  has no reply, other than “I’m Irish.”

The few moments of peace Terry  was able to enjoy during this period of heartache and worry were found at a local pub called The Hearthstone, where she would sometimes join friends to relax and dance for a couple of precious hours.

She eventually sold the Merrick house and moved to an apartment in New Hyde Park, where she worked as a bank teller until she finally retired and moved in with her daughter Teresa and her family in Florida. These days, she spends about half the year visiting her other nine children (Rosemary, Paul, Irene, Laura, Vincent, Kenneth, Christina, Virginia and Richard), and along with them, her nineteen grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

But, back to the story about selling eggs, I urge Terry. Vincent was surprised, yes, but was he good-surprised, or was he Ricky-Ricardo-surprised? She laughs again, “He was very happy!”
And, of course, he had every reason to be happy. Because if Terry has only one actual thing in common with this ridiculous television character to whom I insist on comparing her, it’s a similarly dogged refusal to allow unfortunate circumstances, and life’s unrelenting unpredictability, to ever diminish her optimism, or her ability to find humor in the moment.

Perhaps this is what people are picking up on when they find themselves inexplicably drawn to her. “I think it’s because I love people,” she muses, “and when you love something, it comes right back at you.”

I don’t know much about auras, but I’m inclined to say that Terry’s is a warm constant glow. Less like sunshine, and more like the Sun itself.

More photos:

9 Responses to “Dancing Through Life: Terry McLaughlin”

  1. David Carl says:

    Terry Mclaughlin is my aunt. She was always a bunch of fun and has shown a lot of courage raising all of those kids after Uncle Vincent died. In the family she went by a nickname “Tootsie”, but that’s only within the family. I ddo remember the house in Merrick very well — the area was less crowded than it is now, but me being from Brooklyn it was another world. AuntTootsie still does her crosswords every day and it has maanaged to keep her mind sharp. When we get together we ask each other a lot of family facts. Aunt Tootsie keep on trucking!!!

  2. Maxine Farrell says:

    When I first met Aunt Terry and all the kids I was so taken by her inner and outer beauty. I married into the family to her nephew Jim. She is truly an inspiration to all who meet her. Her zest for life and love of family is a constant. Aunt Terry is so deserving of this article and recognition.
    Love you Aunt Terry.

  3. Rose Mary Grasso says:

    Hello, I just attempted to send you a long note about your husband being a relative of mine and your children being multiple cousins removed but I do not think it went through. I am the great, great gand daughter of Hugh. Tell your children they can contact me if they are interested in family history. Finding you was a delight. I have not run across any other family other than my Dad’s and I am sure there are tons of us out there.

    Rose Mary Grasso

  4. Laurel Doll (watkins) says:

    I know this amazing woman. I grew up in Merrick with Teresa her daughter. What a warm and amazing family. I always felt welcome and safe with them when my own life was tough. I remember when Vincent passed. I don’t really think I completely grasped what had happened but remember the sadness. I have always thought she had a beautiful warm & loving woman and still do. I feel blessed to have been a part of this family!

  5. Terri Peragie says:

    I too am fortunate enough to have known this remarkable Lady!
    She is truly an inspiring person, and always a delight to be around.
    Her love and dependence on, God, shows in everything she does.
    I am honored, and blessed, to have Mrs. McLaughlin touch my life.

  6. Irene Narissi McLaughlin says:

    I am enjoying the emails in response to the article. Here’s one below;

    “Lisa forwarded me the wonderful article on your mom. WOW!! She is sensational in every way, a role model for us all. She looks so beautiful, truly elegant and her verve comes through the pages. I wish her spirit could be bottled and sold as a tonic for us all to take. I am so happy for you that you still have her in your life. Please give her a big hug from me, a fan for life. xo, Linda –Linda Galke Schwartz

  7. Lee says:

    t’s been my pleasure to have known Terry McLoughlin or “Tootsie Belle”
    as she is affectionately called. What a eloquent, classy lady she is, filled with the spirit of giving and the celebration of life! I think I’ve summed up what I feel about her in the chorus of a birthday song I wrote her:

    TOOTSIE BELLE…I can tell
    From your laughter that all is going well
    As a mother of ten
    You persevered time and again
    You’re the dancin’ demoiselle…TOOTSIE BELLE

  8. Irene Narissi McLaughlin says:


    KatherineTimberlakeFinerfrock 4 days ago

    I totally enjoyed this article, about my last living aunt. She is a beautiful woman inside and out. I am so proud of her and how she took care of her family after loosing my Uncle Vincent. I remember my mother and her always laughing along with my aunt Sally. God must have touched her life, to keep her as strong as she is. I love her, and am so glad to see an article that shows what a strong woman can do. Love her with all my heart.

  9. Stephen J. Sullivan, Ph.D. says:

    Hi folks. Aunt Terry is not a member of my family, although she certainly could be. As a proud Brooklyn Hibernian who only moved out to Wantagh, Long island (two towns east of Merrick) in 1998, I feel an almost instinctive kinship. As an academic and a secondary school teacher who has spent most of his life studying the Brooklyn Irish, Mrs. McLaughlin is both an excample of “Everywoman” and a link to one of the most underrated historical figures (‘Boss’ Hugh McLaughlin) in perhaps the most unappreciated municipality in the nation (The City of Brooklyn). My dissertation, “A Social History of the Brooklyn Irish” (Columbia: 2013) simply cannot be turned into a proper book of similar title without a chapter on Hugh McLaughlin and the first truly Irish machine in America. (As we all know, Tweed was decidedly NOT Irish, and the machines in Boston and Cincinnati were developed much later.) Back in 1992 or 1993, one of my high school students (Jared Stern, who recently wrote the screenplay for “The Internship”) received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to compare machine politics in New York and Brooklyn. We interviewed Mr. Courtney Fleming in his Garden City home. I believe he was Hugh’s great grand nephew. He shared all sorts of memorabilia, and a few real estate records, more or less confirming an impressive pattern of wise investments and “good graft” (insider trading in real estate), none of it illegal as Jared clearly demonstrated in his final NEH paper. Mr. Fleming’s explanation of Mrs. McLaughlin’s strained relationship with her parents, but continued (and perhaps clandestine) relationship with at least one sibling was fascinating. He suggested there were surviving letters, but was unsure of their location. “Maybe in Florida…?” At one point I toyed with shifting gears and writing a book or even doing my dissertation on Hugh, rather than the entire Irish community in Brooklyn over a fifty year era (an admittedly Herculean undertaking which has tried the patience of four deans and my entire family.) My wife and my two key professors (Ken Jackson & Eric Foner deserve canonization.)

    I’m hoping to write the “missing link” chapter this summer/fall. I’d like to turn the dissertation into a publishable manuscript by the time i retire from Lawrence High School (Cedarhurst, NY) in June, 2017. The ‘Boss’ is a key. Do such letters exist? Is Mr. Fleming still alive? Nobody in the Garden City Irish Culture Society has any current contact information. That’s what happens when you take 25 years to finish your PhD. (Sigh.) Can Teresa or anyone else help out? The era under study is 1850-1900, but I have included a few worthwhile tales, and followed a couple of leads through WWI. (“Irish time” is inherently flexible.)



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