Peg Mendoza was going to Hollywood.
Growing up, she loved to perform. Acting, singing and dancing were all in her repertoire, and she was cast as the lead in every one of her grammar school productions. From a young age, Mendoza wanted to be famous.
She wanted to be a star.
“In my mind, as soon as I was able, I was running off to Hollywood,” Mendoza remembered with a smile. “I loved it. I really thought I would be an actress.”
When World War II started, her priorities changed.
“The war came along,” Mendoza recalled. “I met my husband, and that (performing) didn’t seem important anymore.”
While Mendoza may not have become a famed actress, for anyone near her Deptford home on May 26, it would certainly seem she got her Hollywood story. A parade wound its way down Locust Grove Boulevard that afternoon: more than 50 vehicles filled with loved ones to wish Mendoza a happy 100th birthday.
There were relatives from near and far, township and county officials, friends from Auletto Caterers and The Colonial Diner, dancers, Mummers — and the list goes on.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mendoza said.
Orchestrated by her daughter, Peggy Principato, the parade for Mendoza was filled “with all of her favorite things.” It was organized as a surprise in lieu of a birthday bash planned at Auletto that had to be canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
“I was so pleased with everything. I contacted friends, shared what I was looking for to commemorate her life, and everyone came through,” Principato said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day or a better turnout.”
The amount of people who wanted to share birthday wishes went beyond the parade, with plenty more reaching out via Facebook, email and phone to send their regards. For anyone who knows anything about Mendoza, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. She has been a staple in the Deptford community and a champion for senior citizens throughout Gloucester County for many years.
Of course, her story starts long before Deptford.
Born on May 26, 1920 as an Irish redhead named Peg Cavanaugh, Mendoza grew up in South Philadelphia surrounded by family. Her mother was the oldest of 10 — eight sisters and one brother — and everyone lived within a two-block radius.
“We had a big family,” Mendoza said. “You could walk to anyone’s house, any time of the day or night. We were always at each other’s houses. We were very close, and I loved it.”
With that many relatives, it was always somebody’s birthday.
“It seemed like all we did was party,” Mendoza laughed.
After marrying her husband, Richard “Bud” Mendoza, and having two children — Peggy and son Richard, who passed away in December, 2017 — the family followed in the footsteps of many South Philadelphians and moved to Deptford more than 60 years ago.
“Most of the people were from South Philly,” Mendoza said of her Deptford neighbors. “We all knew each other.”
The Mendozas bought their new three-bedroom bi-level in Cooper Village for $1,200 — a staggering price at the time.
“I thought that was all the money in the world,” Mendoza said.
Bud had a good career — he was part of the Local 14 Insulators and Asbestos Union — but he didn’t make a tremendous amount of money. Mendoza decided to get a job, and she started work as a secretary in the Deptford Township School District.
Along the way, she always volunteered — in the schools, with Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. The importance of volunteer work was instilled in Mendoza from a young age. During World War II, she even volunteered at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital.
From her job as a secretary, Mendoza moved to a job with Gloucester County, a fortuitous decision that would lead to her helping to form and becoming the first director of the Gloucester County Department of Aging in 1972. In this role, Mendoza was instrumental in starting the county’s Meals on Wheels program and a free bus transportation program for seniors.
“I just felt that I had a lot of good ideas and I thought I would like to put them in use for the older people. I was always concentrating on older people,” Mendoza recalled, adding with a grin, “They were my people, and you didn’t touch them.”
When told that’s how Mendoza spoke of the county’s senior citizens, Deptford Mayor Paul Medany laughed.
“That’s true!” he exclaimed. “Peg dedicated her life to the seniors and the community. She was dogged in her pursuits — once she was onto something, you were doing it. She would not let you go.”
Medany has known the Mendozas nearly his whole life, growing up just a street away. He said Peg has always “been there for everybody,” helping out anyone in need.
“She’s just great,” he added.
Medany was one of many officials who took part in the parade, waving to Mendoza from a decorated car. Mendoza smiled, clapped and blew kisses for the duration, even standing up to dance when two Fralinger String Band Mummers marched by. Her South Philly roots show through her love of the Mummers, and the dancing was typical of this “Dancin’ MomMom” — the moniker her four oldest great-grandchildren use for their great-grandmother, who danced with them from their earliest memories.
After the parade, some family and friends (safely, with social distancing in mind) gathered outside the Locust Grove Community Center. Gloucester County Freeholders were on hand to bestow a surprise proclamation to Mendoza, too.
“Peg Mendoza is an amazing example of what it means to be an outstanding Gloucester County resident,” Freeholder Director Robert M. Damminger said. “She began many of the traditions that still carry on today, like our senior picnic, volunteer luncheon and initiating our Nutrition Program that now serves over 500 hot meals daily.”
Freeholder Jim Jefferson reflected on Mendoza’s efforts beyond retirement.
“Peg dedicated her entire life to improving the quality of life for seniors in Gloucester County,” he noted. “Even after her career as the director of the Department of Aging, she continued to serve and support others.
“She is a proven leader, innovator, advocate and friend to so many in Gloucester County.”
Also at the small gathering, a Frank Sinatra singer serenaded Mendoza, at one point passing off the microphone to the once Hollywood-bound performer. Mendoza, who hadn’t sang a single song since her husband passed away in 1981, grasped the microphone, the words to her favorite melody, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis Presley, leaving her lips.
“It brought tears to everyone’s eyes and made the entire day perfect,” Principato said.
From start to finish, the celebration was a testament to Mendoza — for all she has done in the Gloucester County community and for the smile she has worn through it all.
“I look back at my life and I’ve had a good life,” Mendoza said. “I’ve been very happy about it. And thankful for it. I’m just a happy person.”
Over the years, Mendoza’s life of serving others has been noted in countless ways, with letters from presidents, proclamations from dignitaries, honors and awards.
At Legacy Park, a serene and shady spot located within Fasola Park off Sycamore Lane, a memorial honors those who have dedicated their lives to Deptford Township. Right now, there are only three engraved names: Dr. William King, John Margie and Peg Mendoza.
It may not be a Hollywood star. But for Mendoza and the life she chose, it’s something even better.