Despite being raised in Brooklyn, one of Lee Spitalny’s fondest memories is riding horses when she was a girl.
“There was a bridle path in one area,” Lee says. “My friend and I would take a bus dressed in our jodhpurs and boots, feeling very ‘la-di-da.’ We would ride around the area. Those horses knew; they would stop at a red light. We thought we were pretty fancy.”
Now a Homeland rehabilitation resident, Lee keeps moving. She receives physical therapy as part of the comprehensive range of services Homeland offers through partner Genesis Rehab Services.
“Their therapists are wonderful,” she says. “I feel so safe here. I’m being taken care of.”
Attending Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, Lee enjoyed acting in plays but not in musicals.
“I cannot carry a note if my life depended on it,” she says.
However, that talent gap led to one memorable moment. Famous singer Vic Damone had attended Lafayette and returned to lead a music class. Sitting at the piano, he noticed that Lee wasn’t singing, so he invited her to sit with him.
“I thought I died and went to heaven,” Lee says. “I was glad at that point that I couldn’t sing.”
Lee’s mother was a buyer for Wanamaker’s department store. Lee herself worked at Gimbel’s, selling girls’ rabbit-fur muffs and hats, which shed white fuzz all over her clothes.
“When I walked into the house, my mother said, ‘What have you got all over you?’ It was bunny fur.” Lee laughs about the memory, but her mother “didn’t think it was funny at the time.”
Lee continued acting while attending Upsala College in New Jersey. While in college, she met Howard Spitalny, and they married in her junior year. She graduated with an education degree but went to work for an advertising agency.
“The day after I found out I was pregnant, I retired,” she says. “It was a short-lived career.”
Once again, department stores played a big role in Lee’s life. Her husband’s career as Pomeroy’s corporate merchandising manager brought him to Harrisburg.
They grew to love the area, raising their three children from their home in Susquehanna Township.
She remembers when the cartoon character Quick Draw McGraw came to Pomeroy’s, and she and her kids had a chance to ride around in a convertible around town with the costumed horse gunslinger.
“In my heart of hearts, I’m still a New Yorker,” she says. “I loved the theater. I loved the restaurants. I guess I loved the vitality of New York, but
I love Harrisburg now. It’s a warm and wonderful place to live.”
Lee put her education degree to use teaching comparative religion at Susquehanna Township High School.
“I would have ministers and rabbis and priests come to class,” she says. “I once had a voodoo priest talk to my students. I think they got a lot out of it. I didn’t care if they remembered dates, but as long as they left with respect for another person’s faith and religion, that was the important thing.”
Even though Lee had no business experience, a lifetime’s immersion in retail prepared her for the day when a friend suggested that the area needed an upscale bridal gift shop. She opened and ran The Proper Setting in New Cumberland for about 10 years.
“We had wonderful brides registered and met a lot of lovely, lovely people,” she says.
In retirement, Lee volunteers to read to young children at her synagogue.
“They sit all around on the floor,’’ she says. “Being the ham that I am, I love it. They seem to love it, too.”
Lee also served on Homeland’s Board of Managers; the unique board charged with maintaining Homeland’s home-like feel.
She volunteers for Homeland Hospice, spending time with families in mourning. “Everybody grieves so differently, but I hope I can help,” she notes. Lee shares thoughts from her own experience of losing her son Stephen 20 years ago and her husband just three years later.
“Life goes on,” she believes. “It’s so important to remember to have good memories.”
Lee loves to cook – maybe as a creative outlet to compensate for her lack of singing abilities – and she hopes to return to the kitchen after she goes home to her condo and its wonderful neighbors.
In the meantime, she is diligent about physical therapy, walking the hallways with her therapists. She wants to participate in Homeland’s morning exercise classes – “not that I have ever been an exerciser, believe me.” She reads a lot, currently enjoying Rita Mae Brown’s “Sneaky Pie Brown” mystery series. She keeps in touch with friends by phone.
Lee appreciates the sense of security she feels at Homeland, especially given the COVID-19 crisis.
“Homeland is very well run,” she says. “The people who are residents here feel safe, particularly now. The therapists are wonderful. They’re taking excellent care of me, and everybody who’s in here.”