In the 1935–36 Chaffee School yearbook, Epilogue, senior Ella Tambussi is listed as “born to command.” She spent four years in the drama club, of which she was president as a senior. She was secretary-treasurer of her junior and senior classes, and in the Current Affairs Club as a senior.
Ella, it seems, was destined to lead. Nearly 40 years later, in 1974, Ella Tambussi Grasso became the first woman to be elected governor in the United States in her own right, not as a successor to her husband. She was re-elected in 1978. She also served in the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1952 to 1957, was Connecticut secretary of state from 1959 to 1971, and served in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1975, before she took office as the governor.
Ella had to resign in 1980 due to cancer and died February 5, 1981, at the age of 61.
March is Women’s History Month, the theme of which is “women who tell our stories,” a fitting moment to tell Ella’s story once again.
After her death in 1981, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame as well as the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Ella grew up in Windsor Locks. She graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1940 and married a schoolteacher who later became a principal, Thomas Grasso, in 1942. They had two children together.
When Ella gave the Commencement address at Mount Holyoke College in 1975, during her first year as governor, she told the crowd: “I was encouraged to think of my life not as something that would happen to me, but as something that I would shape for myself. We were encouraged in the view that to share a passion for helping others was a joy and not a drudgery.”
Her passion for public service was evident when she was at Chaffee.
In the 1935–36 yearbook also resides this nugget, a “Class Prophet” presentation that starts:
Scene: Mrs. Finley, sitting in a chair, rather drowsily murmurs, “That senior class. I’ve just about given up hope for them. I wonder what they’ll be like 10 years from now.” Heaves an unhappy, worried sigh, slides down in chair and closes eyes. As she dreams, she sees …
Toward the middle of the three-page presentation comes this:
Ella: Well, I’m just the person you want. I’m up for election in Windsor Locks right now.
Off stage are heard shouts of “Tambussi for mayor. The woman’s touch is what we need. Yay, yay!’
Ella: You see, I’m the People’s Choice. All I need is a good platform.”
This so-called class prophecy was prophetic indeed. Ella was the people’s choice, never having lost an election in her long run in politics, cut too short by her death.
In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for vice president. Had Ella not gotten ill with cancer, that very well might have been her, possibly in 1980. There were rumors that she could be chosen to run alongside Jimmy Carter, who would be elected president.
A New York Times obituary for Ella retold the story of how the Blizzard of 1978 that tore through Connecticut and New England helped cement her status among voters:
“In February 1978, when austerity moves had lowered her popularity, a paralyzing snowstorm hit the state. Mrs. Grasso rushed to the State Armory in Hartford, walking the last mile after her car had bogged down in the snow, and ordered that the whole state be 'closed' for three days, with cars banned from the roads while the snowplows did their work.”
That obit also said that Ella kept on her desk a reminder of this time when the people needed her. It was an aerial photograph. A message was written in footprints on unblemished snow: “Help - Ella.” She was as vigilant when a 1979 tornado struck Windsor Locks, news that was covered extensively on TV and radio.
In a story by Mark Pazniokas of CT Mirror in 2019 on what would have been Ella’s 100th birthday, he writes of a remembrance by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who defied Ella’s orders for everyone to stay off the roads by driving to work.
“About noontime, the phone rang,” Senator Blumenthal recalled. “And as you’ve probably heard, Ella Grasso was accustomed to making her own phone calls. She was on the other end of the line and proceeded to berate me.” Smiling broadly, he added, “In the strongest possible words. I’m not going to repeat.”
Ella was an austere and tough politician. In her early days as governor, she had to lay off state workers, but she also took a pay cut and got rid of the governor’s limousine, opting for a state police cruiser. Stories recount her 6 a.m. calls to state commissioners.
Then-state Rep. Susan Byciewicz said in a 1994 documentary on CPTV that Ella could be “extremely tough … on the other hand, she was ‘Mother Ella.’”