Grease and Grime? She's 79 and Loves it: Detroiter a Fixture in Classes
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Grease and Grime? She’s 79 and Loves it: Detroiter a Fixture in Classes

When Mary Lou Parlato throws on her red flannel shirt and gets ready to work on cars at Macomb Community College, she considers herself to be just like one of the boys. Her hands get dirty and grime gets into her nails.

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From Detroit Free Press

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When Mary Lou Parlato throws on her red flannel shirt and gets ready to work on cars at Macomb Community College, she considers herself to be just like one of the boys.

Her hands get dirty and grime gets into her nails.

"I like to work bare-handed because you have a better feel for where the parts are supposed to go," Parlato of Detroit said as she pointed to a windshield wiper motor she installed Wednesday.

At 79, she’s the oldest student in her automotive technology class. But her gender stands out just as much. According to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, only 76 of the 35,464 licensed mechanics in the state are women.

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"It is not one of the things that women were taught to do, but things have changed a great deal over the years," Parlato said. "There is also a perception that girls don’t like to get dirty, just boys do. I would like to see more women out there in garages."

Parlato is not a licensed mechanic, but it’s not for lack of ability.

Stan Urban, an automotive instructor at the college’s Warren campus, said Parlato has taken courses at the school for at least 20 years and has enough credits to get an associate’s degree and become certified.

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Urban said he thinks Parlato, a retired Detroit Public Schools principal with a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD, takes the classes to stay active.

"She works well with the younger guys in here and I think her presence makes everyone a bit more friendly," Urban said.

Urban said Parlato has taken so many auto-related courses that she just audits the lab course through the year.

She said her interest in autos is drawn from experiences with her father. George Parlato was a mechanic and fixed police cars and service vehicles for the City of Detroit. Parlato said she fetched tools and cleaned up grease for him when she was younger.

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"When I retired from teaching, I took my car to a garage to get fixed and asked the mechanic questions," she said. "I wondered if I could do it, so I started taking classes."

Parlato said she has learned enough that she regularly performs oil changes, tune-ups, tire jobs and other types of maintenance for friends, neighbors and others who couldn’t otherwise afford the work.

Most of the time, she does the work for free.

"God tells us to use what we have to help others, and that is what we are doing," said Ruth Schlesser, Parlato’s best friend and her assistant for many jobs over the years.

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Clentonia Driver-Goodwin, Parlato’s neighbor since 1994, said the freelance mechanic has worked on all of her vehicles.

She recalled the first time she saw Parlato working on a car: "I was in the kitchen baking, and I saw her out of my window laying on the ground outside," Goodwin said. "I ran outside because I thought something was wrong, but she was just under the car doing a brake job."

Her peers in her class say she has just as much knowledge and skills as any other mechanic in the program.

"She reminds me of my grandma," said Chris Turkopp, 20, of Clinton Township.

Turkopp, who helped Parlato install a wiper motor last week, said guys in the class help her lift tires or tighten bolts when it’s too much of a strain for her. But she more than holds her own, he said.

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"At first, it was shocking to see a lady that age attending the class and working on her car," he said, "but she is very hands-on and knows about the automobile for sure."

Copyright 2006 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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