Victoria Sayyah (née Shaneen) 1909-1990 as told by Anne & Maurice Frey
Interview and Photography by Vicky Beal
Written by Allison Kelley
Victoria Sayyah (née Shaneen) told by her daughter Anne Sayyah Frey and her husband Maurice Frey (pictured above)
When Anne Frey tells the story of how her parents met, she gets a mischievous smirk on her face, nods, and her chandelier earrings shake. “Mom went to a Dime-A-Dance with her sister in New York City. In those days girls would dance for a dime, which was a lot of money back then. It was 1927. You went out dressed to kill and you danced. And that’s how mom met my dad.”
Anne’s mom, Victoria Sayyah, was a strong-willed, independent woman at a time when women were not viewed as equals. Victoria was fiercely loyal to her 7 children but never to one man. She traveled the country eventually landing back in Ridgway, PA, a small lumber town her Lebanese immigrant family helped develop. Her life was not easy, but she always supported her family and never lost faith.
From a floral couch in the living room of her St. Marys, PA home, a small town neighboring Ridgway, Anne tells the story of her mother. From Lebanon, to New York to Ridgway, population 4,006 (as of 2012), Victoria’s life was shaped by her hardworking immigrant family and the 7 children she raised all by herself. This is Victoria’s story as told to the author by Anne.
Victoria Sayyah was born Victoria Shaneen in New York in 1909. Her parents, John and Sadie, immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the late 1800’s in search of the American dream. Landing in New York not knowing how to speak or write English, the Shaneen family immediately began looking for opportunities to make money. They had heard the lumber industry was booming in the small developing town of Ridgway, PA and so they journeyed 300 miles to get there. In a few short years the Shaneen’s went from small-time rag sellers to prosperous landowners. They bought hotels including the Larson and Bogert House, restaurants, and invested in many other properties in town. When Victoria’s uncle, Sam Shaneen, died he had 111 property deeds to his name. As a testament to their legacy, the Shaneen name still remains on a building in downtown Ridgway at 245 Main Street.
In 1927, Victoria took a fateful trip to New York with her sister. The two liked dancing so they put on their best dresses and attended a Dime-a-Dance, a popular activity in the 1920s and 30s where men paid to pair up with a female dance partner. At just 16, Victoria was a beauty with olive skin and dark hair. She immediately caught the eye George Sayyah, a handsome and regal man, also of Lebanese descent. The two hit it off and George and Victoria were married soon after. They moved back to Ridgway, where Victoria’s family was busy building their legacy.
Victoria soon felt constricted by her life as a homemaker and craved the independence she felt out on dance floor in New York. During her marriage to George, Victoria raised 5 children, Helen, John, Victor, Anthony, and Anne, while also becoming a business owner. Victoria also had a baby, Edma, who died at 9 months from pneumonia. In 1929, Victoria opened a store in downtown Ridgway where she sold baby items and rugs that she crocheted and knit herself. “She did beautiful handwork,” Anne says. While the store was thriving, Victoria’s marriage to George was rocky. They ultimately wanted different things out of life and eventually George divorced her and joined the Navy.
Victoria took her 5 children and moved 2 hours east to Wellsboro, PA where she met her second husband, Mayne Hoadley. Mayne was a classic country boy, spending his days working on the railroad. Victoria was built for the city. They were like fire and ice but he loved her and eventually they married. Together they had two children, Joe and Sadie. But just like before, Victoria began to feel restless and so she packed up and spent a year with her kids in Texas, staying with her second son Victor who was stationed in the military. Eventually she moved the family back to PA but did not stay with Mayne. She bought a house using her own money in Kane, PA and lived there for 3 years.
As a single mom with 7 kids, Victoria struggled to financially provide for her kids. Even though her family had money to give, she never asked them for anything. This was the life she chose and her only option was to survive and push forward. In 1935 the welfare system was created to provide public aid to low-income and unemployed Americans. Victoria signed up, looking for any way to alleviate the financial burden. However, the allotment barely covered necessities and the family would often have to eat straight lentils for up to a week at a time. “We never ate meat,” Anne recalls. “We’d ask mom for a nickel to go to the movies and she’d tell us, ‘I don’t have it.’ Sometimes you wonder how she did it, but she did. She survived.” As a way to give back to the country that kept her family afloat, all of her sons served in the military and were stationed at bases in Germany, Korea and Vietnam.
When her son, Victor, who she had stayed with in Texas, returned from the service, he went back to Ridgway to help his mom out. Out of all her sons, Victor was the most industrious. “He never let grass grow under his feet,” Anne says about her brother. When he was a teen growing up in Ridgway, Victor worked for his mom’s family in their restaurant, carrying heavy beer cases down to the cellar. As an adult, he worked his way through the ranks at Prudential and eventually started his own lucrative insurance business. When Victor became a multi-millionaire his family began calling him “the godfather” because of how much he provided for the family. Victoria was very proud of her son and the two remained close throughout her life. Victor was one of the very few people Victoria did not want to disappoint. She knew how hard he worked and how many people relied on him. However, because she had always lived so transiently, when Victor would buy her things (homes, cars, etc.), she would sell them because she always remembered how quickly things could change. She always preferred having some money vs. things “just in case” Victor ever lost his wealth.
Victoria remained feisty and defiant even towards the end of her life. When she refused to be put into a hospital or nursing home, her son Victor set her up in her own suite on the ranch he owned in Colorado. Victoria passed away in 1990 at age 82. Family and friends poured in to pay their last respects and to honor the woman who lived life on her own terms.