In 1990 and 1992 I made this series of portraits of individuals more than seventy years old and living independently in and around Durham, North Carolina. The attached texts were written by Nicholas Sholley from interviews he conducted with each person. My portraits were published in 1997 by W. W. Norton in Old and On Their Own with additional photographs by Thomas Roma of elderly in Brooklyn, New York, and text by Robert Coles.
Born in 1906 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Villa Zala’s first job at thirteen was writing the high school column for the local newspaper. She earned 50 cents a week. Villa already had lost both parents by this time and was living with her grandparents. Villa left Lynn, the newspaper society page, and her grandparents in 1924 to find a job in New York City. She began working with the research department of Editor and Publisher, a magazine targeting the publications industry. She then shifted to a new magazine called Time, again as a researcher.
Prior to the stock market collapse of 1929, Villa started working for public speaker, Dale Carnegie, researching and organizing biographical information for a radio show he hosted called “Little Known Facts About Well Known People.” Carnegie dropped her after this four-year project lost its sponsorship from Colgate/Palmolive. Villa continued to work in radio for a year, then spent a few weeks on the New Deal Newspaper Projects, headed by Henry Alsberg. This program employed newspaper writers who “boondoggled” on their typewriters for full days, re-writing newspaper articles in their own words. These articles would then be destroyed at the end of the day. She was boondoggling when word came from Simon and Schuster that Carnegie again needed her help. This was the first of two book-writing collaborations with Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1944)).
In between these book projects, at age 40, Villa married Mike Zala. She continued to write books on her own and with others and articles for newspapers and magazines. In 1975, seven years after Mike died, Villa moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina from her home and large garden in North White Plains, New York. She spent five years auditing UNC Chapel Hill courses, including Sanskrit and Asian philosophy. Soon afterward, she began volunteer work at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens: first potting plants, then organizing and cataloguing the garden library. Villa was asked to concentrate her research skills on the subject of poison plants. She researched and developed the poison plant garden at the gardens and is now regarded as a regional authority on the subject.
As a member of the Retired Seniors’ Volunteer Program, Villa continues to be active in her own garden and occasionally writes articles for magazines and newspapers. However, villa left the North Carolina Botanical Gardens in 1991 when she and other older volunteers felt their rights in the garden were encroached upon. Villa believes this could be a common problem among retirees who are volunteering among tenured professionals: they are welcome for only a limited period of time and in only a limited capacity. Zala continues to write, currently working on a book about Dale Carnegie and her collaboration with him.
She is pictured here with her cat, Calypso, outside their double-wide mobile home several miles from downtown Chapel Hill. (written in 1992)