Estelle Musico was at an age most people start dreaming about retirement when she bought her first McDonald's franchise with her husband, Sam, in Somerset, Pa. -- the ripe age of 59, with three decades as a high school teacher and counselor comfortably under her belt, no less. She ended up liking being her own boss so much, she'd go on to buy more five more franchises, the last in Donegal, when she was well into her '80s.
By the time the longtime Rosslyn Farms resident retired at age 95 in 2009, she was the oldest active owner/operator in the fast-food giant's worldwide system, chalking up 36 years with the Golden Arches and in the process earning numerous awards for outstanding stores and customer service.
She was revered as a role model for female owner/operators. As a parting gift, McDonald's created a new award in her name, the Estelle Musico Passion and Perseverance Award.
"And they also had a very large celebration for her," said her daughter, Maggi Reiss of Columbus, Ohio.
Mrs. Musico died peacefully at home Friday at age 98. True to her spirit, she remained active until the very end, visiting a friend in a nursing home, going to church and getting her hair done the week before.
"She just had an incredible work ethic," Mrs. Reiss said, "and so much energy." Case in point: She made the daily 90-minute commute to Somerset by herself well into her nineties.
Born in Glendale to a Polish immigrant family, Mrs. Musico didn't speak English until she went to public school in the fifth grade. But she quickly made up for lost time. By the second nine-week grading period, she was at the top of her class, and she never looked back. She so excelled at her studies that she ended up valedictorian of her class at Scott Township High School.
A lover of ancient language and literature, Mrs. Musico decided to study classics at the University of Pittsburgh. Yet she also was a realist who recognized she'd need a job immediately after graduating to make ends meet. So even though no one had ever done it before, she persuaded college administrators to allow her to pursue a dual degree in classics and business, while also waitressing to help pay tuition. She graduated magna cum laude in 1937.
Mrs. Musico didn't set out to be an entrepreneur; her first job was teaching business at Scott Township High School before being hired by the Carnegie high school (now Carlynton) to teach Latin. After earning her master's degree in guidance and counseling, she became a high school guidance counselor.
Her husband, though, who worked in sales, had always dreamed of owning his own business, said her daughter. So when they finally had saved enough money to go off on their own, "she supported his goals."
That's why she also took up golf in her 30s -- to be able to spend time with her husband -- even though she was more naturally inclined to a sewing machine than a putter. An accomplished seamstress, she sewed her own clothes and made her daughter's wedding dress.
Mrs. Musico took to running a business like a duck to water, her daughter said, in large part because she loved the educational aspect of managing a staff.
Showing her workers how to greet customers, create schedules and make change reminded her of her days as a teacher, and education always was so important to her.
"She loved working with young people," she said.
And in her "spare" time? A lifelong member of All Saints Polish National Catholic Church in Carnegie, Mrs. Musico sang in the choir and worked tirelessly for its School of Christian Living, which she founded in the mid-1950s "because it was time for me to go to Sunday school, and they didn't have one," Mrs. Reiss said.
In addition to her daughter and son-in-law Steven Reiss, Mrs. Musico is survived by brother Edward Durkalski and Renee Storc of Carnegie; sisters-in-law Margaret Spezza of East Carnegie and Pauline Mussill of Mt. Lebanon; and two grandsons Michael (Kristen) Reiss and Benjamin Reiss of Arlington, Va.
Visitation will be from 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Szafranski/Eberlein Funeral Home, 101 Third St., Carnegie. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday in All Saints Polish National Catholic Church, Carnegie.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.