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At 90 years young, Warwick's Tortolani earns her long-awaited associate degree

At 90 years young, Warwick's Tortolani earns her long-awaited associate degree

Motivated by what lies ahead, not what’s in the past, Natalie Tortolani lives life one day – and one challenge – at a time.

On May 16 at the Amica Mutual Pavilion, Tortolani will cross the commencement stage at 90 years young to receive her associate degree from the Community College of Rhode Island, ending an inspiring, life-changing journey that began rather unexpectedly more than a decade ago.

A first-generation Jewish immigrant born in Berlin shortly before the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Tortolani remains as active and sharp as ever as she approaches her 90th birthday in March; she exercises regularly, maintains a healthy diet, and still drives to class from her home at an assisted-living facility just a few miles from CCRI’s Knight Campus.

The mother of two adult sons, both in their 60s, and the widow of former jewelry manufacturer Robert Tortolani, who passed away in 1997, Natalie recently wrapped up her final project of the Fall 2023 semester to complete her degree in Fine Arts with a concentration in Art. She displayed her most recent paintings as part of the Quatrain exhibit in November showcasing student work at the Knight Campus Art Gallery.

“I’ve never really gotten old,” Tortolani said. “The voice in my head has always stayed the same. In my head, I’m 25.

“It’s the housing that changes.”

Tortolani, born to Helene and Benjamin Taubmann, a painter and freelance artist, in 1934, was only five when the family fled Berlin after enduring several years of increasing persecution against Jews in Germany. Her father obtained an affidavit and sponsorship from a Purple Heart veteran of the U.S. Army and sailed alone from Hamburg aboard the SS Hansa, arriving in New York City in June of 1939. Natalie and her mother followed that winter aboard the SS Saturnia, which sailed from Genoa, Italy, and arrived in New York six months later.

The family lived in the “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood on the west side of Midtown Manhattan, where Natalie attended the High School of Performing Arts and excelled in ballet for nearly a decade. Shortly after high school, she competed in an open audition for backup dancers and earned a job touring with legendary singer Tony Bennett during a two-week performance at the former Ranch House in Rhode Island. While on tour, she met her soon-to-be husband and the two wed when Natalie was 20; unable to continue dancing due to reoccurring knee problems, she eventually moved to Rhode Island with Robert and began the next phase of her life as a mother and homemaker, passing up an opportunity to attend Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers on a one-year scholarship. Dancing, she says, was her mother’s dream, not hers, and once the dream was gone, Natalie had no aspirations other than to raise a family.

“I liked being home,” she said. “I liked being with my kids and going to their ball games.”

Her oldest son, Bobby, is retired, while Mark, who just turned 60, works as a tennis coach. After her husband passed away, Natalie found herself on her own again, so she decided to do something for herself and enrolled at CCRI in 2010 “on a lark” as a General Studies major.

“I look at it this way: I grew up as my father’s daughter, I got married and was my husband’s wife, then I was my children’s mother,” she said. “After [my husband] died, I suddenly became Natalie again.”

The experience, at first, was “scary” because it had been decades since Tortolani stepped inside a classroom, but her first course, an English literature class taught by Professor Susan Apshaga, rekindled her love for reading. After attending on and off for the next decade, she finally decided to “get serious” and pursue a degree, so she enrolled for the third and final time in Fall 2019, following in her father’s footsteps as a Fine Arts major. She cites Art, Art History, & Design Professor Mazin Adam as a key influence in her pursuit of a degree, helping her select the right courses to take to stay on track.

“It was a pleasure because I didn’t have to be here. It was a privilege,” Natalie said. “There’s a big difference.”

Being in a classroom with students less than half her age also had its perks.

“They called me ma’am,” she laughed.

“I had a girl in a video class sitting next to me. Lovely kid. We were talking one time about memory. I said, ‘You know, I could remember every song that Frank Sinatra ever sang. I can even remember the lyrics. But when I walk out of Stop & Shop I can’t remember where I parked my car.’

“She looked at me and says, ‘Who’s Frank Sinatra?’”

Natalie, who in 2020 also wrote her first novel, Golden Devil, which is currently for sale on Amazon, admits she doesn’t think much about the life she left behind when her family fled Berlin and has almost no recollection of the relatives who didn’t make it out in time. Books and movies about Nazi concentration camps or the Holocaust hit “too close to home.”

“I’ve got a life and this is the life I’ve got to concentrate on.

“As a matter of fact,” she said, “when my doctor asks me about my family history, I say, ‘I don’t have any.’ I couldn’t tell you if my grandmother ever had glaucoma.”

In 2014, she donated what few remnants of her past life remained to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. – a 1918 banknote, affidavits, documents, a ship ticket, photographs, and her parents’ passports.

The rest is a distant memory, but there are more chapters to write. After crossing the stage in May, Natalie will remain immersed in the world of fine arts and perhaps volunteer her time at the Warwick Art Museum, where she also hopes to have some of her work displayed. Though she admits she’s slowed down a bit – at least by her standards – the anticipation of life’s next great challenge keeps her moving.

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