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Advice for living from the matriarch of Pass-a-Grille

Mary Falkenstein was the heart of the beach community. She almost made it to 100.
Mary Falkenstein and her husband, Domonick Falkenstein, on Pass-A-Grille’s 8th Avenue. Mrs. Falkenstein’s husband died in 1961, and she raised her three children by herself.
Mary Falkenstein and her husband, Domonick Falkenstein, on Pass-A-Grille’s 8th Avenue. Mrs. Falkenstein’s husband died in 1961, and she raised her three children by herself. [ Courtesy Danielle Micklitsch ]
Published Oct. 5, 2020

For most of her life, Mary Falkenstein had three striped tan lines across her feet.

At St. Pete’s Pass-a-Grille Beach, she wasn’t a sunbather or a poolside idler.

Mrs. Falkenstein was working.

Seven days a week, from sunrise to bedtime, she wore sturdy, strappy sandals and walked from The Keystone Motel on Gulf Way to The Hurricane Seafood Restaurant and back. She owned both and worked at both, up and down the motel’s steps with towels and soap and solutions, down the sidewalk to the restaurant to greet guests sampling her renowned crab cakes.

Mrs. Falkenstein never retired.

She died on Sept. 20 of natural causes. She was 99. Mrs. Falkenstein, or Nanny to her grandchildren and community, leaves behind two landmark businesses and lessons we all could learn from.

Here are a few of her Nanny-isms.

The Keystone opened in 1945. It’s pictured here in this ad from 1953. Mrs. Falkenstein first visited Pass-A-Grille in her 20s. At her tallest, she was about 5’1.
The Keystone opened in 1945. It’s pictured here in this ad from 1953. Mrs. Falkenstein first visited Pass-A-Grille in her 20s. At her tallest, she was about 5’1. [ Courtesy Danielle Micklitsch ]

“Hard work will never kill you, but laziness will.”

The youngest daughter of Italian immigrants made it to the end of eighth grade. Then, Mrs. Falkenstein started working in the family business, a corner store in Aspinwall, Penn.

She never learned to swim or ride a bike or roller skate. Instead, she learned to pluck turkey feathers, make change and balance the books.

They lived in Baltimore in the early 1940s when Mrs. Falkenstein’s father developed arthritis. The best thing for it, a doctor told Bruno Reitano, was to soak in the Gulf of Mexico every day. Mrs. Falkenstein, then in her 20s, offered to visit Florida with her father.

The two took the train to St. Petersburg, arrived at night and asked a cabbie to take them to the most beautiful beach around.

That’s how they discovered Pass-a-Grille.

On that visit, Mrs. Falkenstein’s father found the owner of a piece of vacant land across the street from the beach. In 1945, the 36-room Keystone Hotel-Motel opened.

Mrs. Falkenstein went back to Baltimore, married, had three children and ran the family business there. In 1976, after her youngest graduated high school, Mrs. Falkenstein moved to Florida.

Soon, just like her father, she found an opportunity, this one down the street at a little restaurant where a hotel once sat. In 1977, she opened Hurricane and ran it with her two sons, Bruno and Rick. Daughter Mary Jo joined her mom to work at the Keystone.

For the next 44 years, Mrs. Falkenstein walked back and forth, day after day.

Bruno Reitano with his three daughters, Josephine Boyer, Betty Reitano and Mary Falkenstein. The sisters, Boyer and Reitano, ran a restaurant across the street in Pass-a-Grille where The Brass Monkey now stands.
Bruno Reitano with his three daughters, Josephine Boyer, Betty Reitano and Mary Falkenstein. The sisters, Boyer and Reitano, ran a restaurant across the street in Pass-a-Grille where The Brass Monkey now stands. [ Courtesy Danielle Micklitsch ]

“Hard work will never kill you, but the stress will.”

When Danielle Micklitsch started working with her grandmother and mother at the Keystone, she found some of Nanny’s business practices ridiculous.

While writing checks to the power company or the landscaper, for instance, Mrs. Falkenstein would scribble on a Post-It, something like: “I hope you are having a great day. Thank you for what you do. All my best, Mary.”

What a waste of time, Micklitsch thought.

“Over time, I realized that she wasn’t just sending in a check, she was developing relationships.”

Mrs. Falkenstein did that with everyone, Micklitsch said, employees, guests, customers, neighbors.

John and Patti Pace first booked a stay at the Keystone for Thanksgiving in 1997 while their oldest attended university in St. Pete. Then, they kept visiting.

“We could have been away for a couple of years before coming back,” said John Pace, “but when we called or walked in the door, she knew exactly who we were.”

Mrs. Falkenstein never complained that she worked too much or was tired. Running a business wasn’t a job. It was her way of life.

Mrs. Falkenstein, center, with her daughter, Mary Jo Micklitsch, left, and granddaughter Danielle Micklitsch, right. Mrs. Falkenstein’s daughter cared for her mother as she aged. Mrs. Falkenstein always kept her hair current with the latest styles, got regular pedicures and kept clear polish on her fingernails. She’d work the color off otherwise.
Mrs. Falkenstein, center, with her daughter, Mary Jo Micklitsch, left, and granddaughter Danielle Micklitsch, right. Mrs. Falkenstein’s daughter cared for her mother as she aged. Mrs. Falkenstein always kept her hair current with the latest styles, got regular pedicures and kept clear polish on her fingernails. She’d work the color off otherwise. [ Courtesy Danielle Micklitsch ]

“No two sunsets are ever alike.”

When asked her age, Mrs. Falkenstein would make one up. If she was feeling spunky, and she often was, she’d invite the inquisitor to guess. Or she’d say: “A woman who tells her age tells everything.”

“A penny for your thoughts?” her granddaughter sometimes asked.

“A nickel to mind your own business,” Mrs. Falkenstein always replied.

And when asked if she enjoyed the postcard sunsets at Pass-a-Grille, she had just one answer.

“No two sunsets are ever alike.”

Mrs. Falkenstein would stop, while in a guest room or sitting in the office, and watch the sun sink into the Gulf. It was a connection, Micklitsch thinks, to her dad and the vision he had so long ago.

Now, Micklitsch and her mother run the Keystone. Every time she pays a bill, Micklitsch writes a note. And her feet, like Nanny’s, have the tan lines of someone always walking back and forth along the sunny sidewalk, carrying on the work of generations.

Mrs. Falkenstein, in a brief moment of rest, with dogs Eva and Lola and Tilly the cat. Mrs. Falkenstein lived in Pass-a-Grille until her death.
Mrs. Falkenstein, in a brief moment of rest, with dogs Eva and Lola and Tilly the cat. Mrs. Falkenstein lived in Pass-a-Grille until her death. [ Courtesy Danielle Micklitsch ]

Those we’ve lost:

We’re collecting stories of the people we’ve lost during the coronavirus. Please share suggestions at khare@poynter.org, and sign up for our weekly newsletter, coming soon, called How They Lived.

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