Every year, as part of Woman’s History Month, each Nassau County Legislator selects a woman in her or his district to be honored as a “trailblazer.” Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton’s choice for this year was a both unusual and fitting. DeRiggi-Whitton named her mother, Dr. Millie Murphy DeRiggi.
DeRiggi began her claim for “trailblazing” in the mid-1960s when the developing television industry offered opportunities for women. She was one of three women in their 20s who wrote for the quiz show, Jeopardy! They took turns acting as judge during the filming of shows by NBC.
DeRiggi was born in Jersey City, NJ. Her father’s parents came from Ireland in the 19th century and her mother’s family arrived from Italy in the early 20th century. Although their parents had come from different countries, they had become friends as next door neighbors—an American story.
DeRiggi attended Holy Family Academy in Bayonne and Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. She won a National Defense Fellowship for graduate study at the University of Delaware. After completing courses for a doctorate, she returned to New York with a still unfinished dissertation.
It was then that she answered an ad in the New York Times and found the job at Jeopardy! In 1966, she married attorney Don DeRiggi from Long Island. They had met in college when Don attended nearby Villanova.
In 1968, the family moved to Glen Cove when Delia was born. Two years later, her brother Brendan arrived.
Since moving to Glen Cove, DeRiggi wanted to learn the history of the place that her family now called home. Starting with a visit to the History Room at the Glen Cove Library, she was amazed to find original documents that date to the beginning of the settlement. What she discovered led her to go back for graduate study, again at Delaware and then SUNY Stony Brook. Her master thesis is “The Beginning of Musketa Cove,” the original name of the City of Glen Cove, which will celebrate its 350th anniversary next year.
DeRiggi-Whitton remembers the research trips that her father would turn into family vacations. Everyone—Delia, Brendan, parents Millie and Don and their Springer Spaniel Lloyd, would pile into the family car and go to places like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Later, DeRiggi wrote a dissertation on early Quakers on Long Island, earning a doctorate.
When the children were young, DeRiggi had a series of part-time jobs, including freelance work for another quiz show, College Bowl. As an adjunct professor, she taught courses in political science at Molloy College and history at NYIT.
DeRiggi became the historian for the Nassau County Museum Division and director of its collection at Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra. She has given talks at Hofstra, Glen Cove Library, Rotary and North Shore Historical Museum.
In Glen Cove, most people who know DeRiggi simply recognize her as the wife of Don DeRiggi, former mayor and Nassau County Judge. At the Trailblazer awards ceremony, DeRiggi recalled that when her father was first elected mayor, her mother had a suggestion. Each year on Labor Day, Glen Cove had a traditional Baby Beauty Contest that ended in one winner, other disappointed parents and even arguments. Her mother wanted to replace the beauty contest with another event.
The next Labor Day, DeRiggi and some of her friends put together “Baby Day” with the message that each baby is beautiful and Glen Cove is proud of every one of them. This new celebration took place in the Village Square with a baby parade, T-shirts, balloons, souvenirs, music and refreshments. The event became so popular that eventually the city took it over, moved the celebration to Morgan Park, added attractions and changed it to “Children’s Day.”
Standing together at the podium during the awards ceremony, DeRiggi thanked her daughter for recalling Baby Day.
“It does stand for what I believe,” she said, then added, “Woman’s History Month reminds us to encourage girls to think for themselves and to trust themselves. There is much they can accomplish.”