After friends persuaded him to attend a church dance in Astoria, Queens, Claudio Pragliola found himself staring at a woman with the “nicest legs he’d ever seen.” It was his future wife, Marion.
Marion, however, was skeptical that Mr. Pragliola was the guy for her. In fact, she told him to get lost when he approached her because she thought he couldn’t dance, she recalled with a laugh recently.
Nonetheless, on April 21, 1961 — less than a year after they met — Marion donned a pale green dress to exchange “I do’s” with Mr. Pragliola in a small ceremony at the Manhattan Municipal Building. They celebrated their 55th anniversary Friday.
“I’m happily married with Marion, a lovely woman,” Mr. Pragliola, 79, said. “I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.”
Following their no-frills nuptials — during which it poured the entire time, Ms. Pragliola, 82, said — the couple grabbed dinner before going back to work.
They would go on to raise two children — a daughter, Debbie, and a son, Claude — move from Queens to Wading River and spend time with their three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
But before they ever met, Mr. Pragliola overcame a difficult childhood during which he lost both his parents at a young age. Born and raised on the island of Lussinpiccolo, which was then part of Italy but is now part of modern-day Croatia, Mr. Pragliola’s mother was taken to Auschwitz. She was killed at the concentration camp when Mr. Pragliola was 5 years old. His father had abandoned the family shortly before.
“When the Germans took my mother away, a German officer told me to run away because they don’t leave the kids behind,” Mr. Pragliola said. “As I was running away there was another German chasing me, but he never caught me. Thank God.”
He and his stepbrother, Romando, were sent to an orphanage in Italy, where Mr. Pragliola remained until he was 13, when an aunt in Brooklyn sent for him. He was then sent to another orphanage, Mount Loretto in Staten Island, where he lived until he was 16. There, he received two years of schooling before graduating with a high school diploma.
Mr. Pragliola worked odd jobs until he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1957; at the time, a man didn’t need to be an American citizen to enlist. He was on active duty until 1959, traveling to Taiwan, China and Japan. Following his service, Mr. Pragliola became an American citizen, later joining the Riverhead chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 1998, he was named Legionnaire of the Year.
Mr. Pragliola spent 30 years as a New York City bridge painter, a job he said gave him the opportunity to “paint every bridge in New York City twice.” Thanks to his dedication, he is the proud owner of one of just seven bronze New York State seals that hang on all city bridges. It hangs outside a shed in his backyard.
“The best part was the view,” Mr. Pragliola said last week as he thumbed through pictures of himself and his friends atop various bridges. In one photo, the World Trade Center was being constructed in the background.
Just as Mr. Pragliola carved a living for himself, so did his wife. Ms. Pragliola, who said she grew up “dirt poor” in Brooklyn, was an employee of the first-ever Pepsi-Cola factory near the East River. She worked in an office building there until her youngest child, Claude, began school at Public School 85 in Queens, at which point she became a crossing guard.
When the family moved to Wading River in 1972 and her children enrolled in the Riverhead School District, Ms. Pragliola spent 16 years as a cafeteria worker, often commuting by foot to Riley Avenue School in Calverton.
Each has persevered and accomplished much, but the couple says their greatest success is their lasting love. Mr. Pragliola has advice for couples hoping to enjoy a similar relationship.
“If you want to make the marriage work, you have to obey the wife,” he said with a laugh.
Ms. Pragliola countered him, saying her patient and giving nature is what makes the marriage work. Primarily, however, she attributes their success to the fact that they each have different interests and personalities.
“He’s a great guy, but he’s got his own life,” Ms. Pragliola said. “He likes to go to the barn and the VFW and American Legion; he likes to gamble a little bit. I’m the other one. I don’t want to go out too much; I don’t drink. So I think maybe there’s a balance here. He’s on this side and I’m pulling back on the other side a little bit.”
Claude Pragliola, 52, said he’s inspired by his parents’ story.
“They both came from nothing,” he said. “And they did get the American Dream. I’m very proud of their story.”