After suffering years of abuse and seeing her children murdered by her first husband, Tammy Purpura has overcome giant struggles and persevered to better herself.
On Sunday, at 47 years old, the ninth-grade dropout will become a college graduate.
“It’s been a long, hard haul. … It took me 17 years to get a four-year degree,” Purpura said in an interview on the back deck of her Plains Township home on Friday, a few hours after she attended the King’s College graduation rehearsal at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Purpura was living in her hometown of Beech Creek, outside Lock Haven in Clinton County, when she dropped out of high school to have her first child at age 15. “I was the teen runaway and stuff, too. I went through all that,” she said. “Finally, my dad signed the papers” giving her permission to get married.
Ten years and three kids later, after enduring physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Purpura finally left Jon Calvin Smith and had a protection from abuse order filed against him.
“The kids and I stayed at the women’s shelter,” said Purpura. “He checked himself into a drug rehab. I left him a few times and always went back. But the last beating he gave me, there was no way I was going back because my daughter witnessed it and I needed to get my kids out of that environment.”
Smith was released from rehab the Wednesday before Father’s Day in 1991 and a judge granted him unsupervised visitation with his children. It was Father’s Day morning when he shot them to death with a handgun and turned a shotgun on himself.
How did she survive the aftermath?
“A year and a half of mental health sessions five days a week. … I was suicidal,” said Purpura. “And I swear, my three kids were the ones who helped me. I lost a lot of faith in God, but I really started believing in guardian angels. And I believe my kids were my guardian angels. But the thing that helped me the most was contacting the Parents of Murdered Children (support) group.”
A few years later, she met Jack Purpura, whose father owned a pizza shop. The two began dating and got married. Her husband and his brother-in-law wanted to open a new shop and scouted out the Wyoming Valley.
Tammy and Jack moved to this area 17 years ago and set up shop first in Larksville, then in Wilkes-Barre before opening the Original Italian Pizza & Pasta in Heather Highlands, Jenkins Township.
“I was 30 years old and I had myself (pegged) as a failure at everything because my self-esteem was so low from my first marriage,” recalled Purpura. “Jack had said to me, ‘You’re only a failure if you give up.’ He pushed me to go get my GED. I failed it the first time. I said, ‘Jon Smith was right.’”
Jack wouldn’t let her give up. She retook the exam and passed. And while working full-time, she attended Luzerne County Community College and earned an associate degree in human services. She took time off after giving birth to their son, Salvatore, and began taking classes at King’s College about 10 years later.
Now, Purpura is only one semester away from earning enough credits to boast a minor in sociology to accompany the bachelor’s degree in psychology that she will accept on Sunday.
While she doesn’t want to leave her “St. Joe’s kids” at her current position at St. Joseph Center in Dunmore, working with disabled children, Purpura said she eventually wants to work either with behaviorally challenged teens, Children and Youth Services or in some way with battered women and children.
But for now, working full-time at St. Joe’s, helping at the pizza shop and hauling her son Salvatore and daughter Angel to and from sporting events gives Purpura more than enough to do. And while she still misses and thinks daily about her first three children — Jon Jr., Jennifer and Justin — she’s content.
“I need a break. I have to pat myself on the back because it’s been long and hard, it really has. … Would I do it again? Probably. Do I want to right now? No, I’m on break right now,” she said, laughing.