Following is a personal story — a story about how a near-fatal incident transformed the life of my mother, Lil Vaccarello, who turned 100 years old this month (July 2021). She is an inspiration to me and a significant reason for my faith and the work I have done in Silicon Valley.
Palm Sunday, 1934, was a sunny day in quaint, historic Concord, Massachusetts. Although this was much like other Palm Sundays for the Hansen family, it would be a day to remember, especially for Lillian Hansen, a girl of 13.
After church and Sunday lunch with her family, Lillian asked her mom if she could break in her new black, patent leather shoes, which she intended to wear on Easter Sunday. New shoes were a rarity. Her Dad, Herman, a carpenter, rarely had full-time work during the depression. With four children at home, there was little money to spare.
Lil asked if it was okay to take a walk with her friends, Peg Hanley and Eileen Barry. She and her friends were classmates in the eighth grade at Peter Buckley, a public school in Concord.
Concord, at the time, was home to an ethnic mixture of people – Yankee blue bloods, as well as enclaves of immigrant groups from Europe – especially Scandinavia, Ireland, and Italy. The Hansen family had its roots in Norway. The family lived in a section of town referred to as “Behind the Depot.”
At around 3:30, Lil, Peg, and Eileen set out from the Hansen home and walked across the train tracks on Main Street toward West Concord. Lil’s older sisters, Margaret and Liz, and two of their friends followed a distance behind. Talking and joking about school, Lil and her friends came to a familiar place – a bridge crossing the Sudbury River, a 41-mile tributary that wounds its way east from Southborough to Concord.
The river was unusually low for this time of year as the winter had brought little snow to melt and feed the river. Large boulders poked through the flowing water
To the girls’ right, 75 yards away and 25 feet over the river, stood a trestle bridge supporting train tracks.
As she gazed at the trestle, Lil had an idea. “Wouldn’t it be fun to go up on the trestle?” Eileen and Peg agreed. Margaret and Liz heard the conversation as they caught up with the girls. “Lil, don’t go up on the trestle,” they pleaded. “We will be fine,” replied Lil. “We are just going to cross the trestle and come right down.”
Lil, Peg, and Eileen scrambled up the hill leading to the elevated tracks and trestle. They were startled to hear a train whistle behind them as they got halfway across the fifty-foot trestle. The multi-car train, the Minute Man Limited, bound for Chicago from the North Station in Boston, was barreling toward them. The train had just completed a curve and was headed straight for the girls. They sprinted for safety. Peggy and Eileen made it across the trestle and tumbled into the grass to the side of the tracks. Lil stumbled and fell. Her new patent leather shoes were not made for running.
As the train steamed down the tracks toward the girls, blowing its whistle and screeching as the engineer applied the brakes, trying to stop the train. Somehow, Lil lowered herself, hanging onto the wooden ties as she sensed the water below. With the crush of noise in her ears from the whistle and metal wheels grinding just above her fingers and steam coming from the brakes, Lil managed to cling to the ties. “It felt as though the train was running over my fingers,” she recalls.
“I must have blacked out because the next thing I remember, I was walking down the hill accompanied by a red-headed boy who I did not know and by a friend, Byron Fish. The red-headed boy rode his bicycle over the bridge when he heard the whistle and saw Lil hanging from the trestle. Abandoning his bike, he hustled up the hill and across the trestle bridge to pull Lil up. Byron, who had been canoeing in the river, ditched the canoe and followed right behind.
A crowd had gathered on the street as the incident unfolded. The train conductor and engineer ran from the train that had stopped some 300 yards beyond the trestle. All offered their help as the shy red-headed boy, later identified as Arthur Carlsen, slipped away. Stunned and hurting with a bruised knee and splinters in her hands and fingers, Lil declined any help and walked home with her friends.
Commenting on the incident, Lil now says, “Arthur was like an angel that God sent. For some reason, God wasn’t ready to take me. I think he was testing me and prompting me to go on and help others.”
An Unexpected Reward
Four months later, God sent another angel. Nineteen-thirty-four was the midst of the depression. The Hansen’s were struggling financially. Lil’s sister Edy noticed that the Boston Record-American newspaper offered $10 for the best story of the week and $100 for the best story of the month. Edy wrote Lil’s story and sent it to the paper. She won $10 for the best story of the week. A few weeks later, Floyd Gibbons, the locally renowned editor of the Record American, came to the Hansen’s home to present a $100 check for the best story of the month.
“My parents were a little hard up that year,” says Lil. “That $100 went to pay my mother and father’s overdue taxes.”
The episodes had an even more profound effect on the trajectory of Lil’s life. “When I didn’t die on the trestle, I knew that it was God who saved me. He was not ready for me. I made a vow to help others and volunteer.”
At the age of 19, she married Vin Vaccarello, who she met in Concord.
Fulfills Her Promise
Lil lived up to her promise to serve others as a loving mother of four children, grandmother to ten grandchildren, great grandmother to fifteen, and a long-time teacher and volunteer.
In her thirties, she was a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop. She also helped start a Little League in her neighborhood in Waltham, Massachusetts, and headed the women’s auxiliary that ran the refreshment stand during the Little League games. In her late thirties, she began teaching nursery school, which she did for 19 years, later serving as a school administrator for two years.
In retirement, she volunteered with Hospice in her then hometown of Bristol, NH, and was an active member of the Garden Club and the Women’s Club, which helped with clothing drives for the needy.
Lil has a great sense of humor and loves to entertain. During winters in Florida, she put together a group of retired women called the Hula Cats. The group danced and sang with a big band, led by her husband and drummer, Vin. They performed to the delight of residents in elderly communities.
Later she returned to Concord, where she volunteered at Meals on Wheels and managed Harvey’s Treasurers, a gift shop with the Council on Aging. Proceeds supported the Council. With her sister, Thelma, she formed a tambourine group that performed at nursing homes and schools. “The Concord Shakers,” as they called themselves, even performed in front of thousands at the Hynes Auditorium to benefit the Salvation Army. And much to their delight, the Shakers were flown to California to appear on the Jay Leno show.
At 98 years old, and until Covid-19 shut down activities, Lil continued to fulfill her promise. She volunteered once a week at the thrift shop at her church on Cape Cod, collecting donated items, cleaning them, and putting merchandise on the shelves. The money raised by the thrift shop supported the church and the poor in the community.
“God has been good to me,” she says, “I have lived a wonderful life with a loving husband, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And I have enjoyed the opportunities to help other people.”
Lil celebrated her 100th birthday with her family on July 13, 2021.
Lil’s picture in the newspaper at age 13
From left to right — Her mother (Elizabeth), her younger sister (Thelma), Lil, Floyd Gibbons (editor for the Boston Record American newspaper.