New York native sends love to Alabama

Published: Aug 25, 2020 2:02 PM

By Lauren Winton

Native New Yorker Mary Cordato has a heart for small town Alabama. Born and raised in Brooklyn, her affinity for one East Alabama town was inspired by her father, Joseph Cordato. A native of New York himself, Joseph traveled to Alabama on the train in 1933 to pursue his degree in engineering.

“I’m not quite sure why he decided on Auburn, or Alabama Polytechnic Institute as it was then known. I think he had a friend from high school who told him about the program,” Mary said.

When Joseph made up his mind to pursue his degree at Auburn, he had to commit to a cross-country trip to determine whether or not he would be accepted.

“Back in those days, it wasn’t like you applied, submitted your SAT scores and were accepted or not. Instead, there was an entrance exam. When he found out the date of the entrance exam, my father hopped on the train and traveled to Alabama to take the exam. He had to wait a few days to find out he was accepted,” Mary said.

While in school, Joseph joined the ROTC. He graduated in 1937 with a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in civil engineering. With World War II on the heels of his graduation, Joseph decided to stay with the military. He was commissioned to Europe during the war as a member of the 304th engineering battalion.

“For the duration of the war, he was in Germany, Belgium, France and England. He was awarded the Bronze Star,” Mary said. “After the War my father took a job with the Board of Transportation doing civil engineering work. He studied for and received his professional engineering license from the State of New York and transferred to the power division doing electrical engineering. He always preferred electrical engineering.”

Joseph’s role took him to the subways, and it was there that he met Mary’s mother, Vivian.

“My mother started working with the New York Transit Authority in 1946. She worked in the personnel office. They both lived in Brooklyn, so they would see each other on their commutes to work. That was how they met,” Mary said.

Joseph had an illustrious career, and before he retired, his last project was powering the 63rd Street tunnel. This direct route took subway travelers from Manhattan into the borough of Queens.

According to Mary, “the tunnel made travel much easier. And when my father retired, the Power Division gave him books of his plans. I don’t understand any of it, but they are fun to look through.”

Mary recalls times when Joseph was called upon from other countries to help with their subway needs.

“When they were putting in a subway in Milano, he was contacted by phone to advise on their project. When the Japanese were putting in a subway in Tokyo, he was called. My father was well-known in the field of transportation power,” Mary said.

While many children may think their parents are the best in the field, Mary’s word carries more credibility. A doctor of philosophy in U.S. Social History, Mary knows a thing or two about the who, what, when, where and why.

“After I received my doctorate degree, I was hired by the American Bible Society as an archivist and historical researcher. I was the director of Library and Archives for ABS before I partially retired,” Mary said.

Before the global pandemic, Mary spent much of her time digitizing historical records. She and her partner, Ron, also used their free time traveling to Auburn.

“My father fell in love with Auburn. And because my mother did not fly, he would take me to Auburn for reunions and gatherings. I jumped at the opportunity and I have been so impressed over the years with what Auburn is doing,” Mary said.

The culture and community of Auburn University won Mary’s heart. That coupled with her interest in advancing careers for women and opportunities within the engineering field are what compelled her to establish a planned gift in engineering. The sizable estate gift is named in honor of Joseph and Vivian Cordato.

“I have always been so impressed by the culture of Auburn, how the people respond to each other and the sense of connection,” Mary said. “When we came to campus, I would speak with students and listen to how they enjoyed their professors, classes and each other. Over the years, my father always spoke about how he wanted to do something for Auburn. After he passed away, I decided to establish an estate gift in his and my mother’s honor.”

While Mary still lives in New York, a piece of her heart will always be in Auburn, thanks to an inspired teenager who took the train to East Alabama in 1933 and left with a degree, new friends and a passion for the community that gave him more than just an education.


Media Contact: Lauren Winton,, 334.844.5519
Joseph Cordato and Mary Cordato

Joseph Cordato and Mary Cordato

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