‘Grease and Grit’

Mechanic and business owner Andrea Dello Russo shares her life and passion at the M.V. Museum.


Andrea Dello Russo’s journey to becoming a mother, educator, motorcycle rider, and business owner running a successful auto repair shop here on the Vineyard is a circuitous and compelling tale. “Grease and Grit: A Female Mechanic’s Tale of Resilience” is the perfect title for the upcoming program at the M.V. Museum with Dello Russo, who will speak about persevering in a man’s world today, and along the way.

She left the Island to attend a military college, and afterward entered the Navy, where men’s attitude toward women was far from enlightened. She found herself unwillingly assigned to engineering. Dello Russo recalls, “A lot of times in the classes, they would say, ‘You know how in your car it does this and this and this,’ and I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Dello Russo was overwhelmed when she got on a ship. Fortunately, a senior chief recognized her dedication to trying to understand what she needed to do. He put the ship’s system into context when they were onshore by having Dello Russo help him work on his cars in his garage: “It was something I could grasp because I could do it with my hands, whereas the units we were working on on the Navy ship were so large it wasn’t easy to take all that knowledge and make sense of it, since I’m a tactile learner.” 

Under his tutelage, everything started to fall into place, and Dello Russo began working on her own car: “The feeling I got when I accomplished it was so great that it immediately went onto my list of professions to try.”

She tucked the idea away when she returned to the Vineyard after the Navy. “I needed to touch base, to refill my soul after the challenging experience of being a woman in the military,” Dello Russo said. She ran the Morning Glory Farm farmstand and cultivated the Whippoorwill Farm fields: “I thought it would put me back in touch with the earth and fill me back up, because I was a pretty empty shell.”

Eventually Dello Russo began working on the tractors, which immediately refueled her interest in mechanics. She decided to try to work in the profession full-time. Applying across the Island, Dello Russo discovered, “I was literally looked up and down and immediately told to my face that there was no way as a woman I would get hired to do this work. I didn’t expect to run into the same kinds of issues I had in the military.”

When she approached Gerry Jeffers, the solo worker and owner of a Chappy service station, he couldn’t take her on, but became her mentor. 

About 16 years ago, she eventually landed a job in a roundabout way. When Dello Russo’s timing belt broke for the third year in a row, it became too expensive to bring to her usual shop, McIntosh Motors. Determined to fix it herself, she bought the part and an instruction book, and approached Bruce McIntosh, who allowed her to park in the driveway and use their tools. “I don’t know if there was anyone else who would have let me do that,” Dello Russo says. “When my kids were in school, I went there and had at it.” Throughout, McIntosh would come out and check on her to see how she was doing — and offered her a job after a successful test drive.

“By then, the fever was there. It was a huge job,” she says. “I saved myself so much money, and the feeling I got from doing it was enough to launch that career for me. It was pretty empowering.”

After about 10 years, McIntosh sold the business to Dello Russo. When she took over, Dello Russo still had a steep learning curve: “I didn’t really have the knowledge at the time, but I just made it happen.”

With no other female mechanics on the Island, she found herself completely isolated until she started traveling and meeting other women in different aspects of the industry, which opened her eyes to the immense struggle women still face, and fuels her passion to bolster them in the trade. 

“Even now, the first thing people look at me doing my job is maybe not necessarily my ability, skill, or confidence, but how I look doing it. I’m not valued or paid as much for the same job, and that is across the industry,” Dello Russo says. 

For the past seven years, Dello Russo has been teaching basic auto and motorcycle maintenance classes for women. “We need people regardless, and women are just as capable as men. So why not offer them the opportunity to put tools in their hands and try them in an environment where they don’t feel like they can’t ask the questions, or try something for the first time, because they don’t want to look stupid or be judged?”

She continues, “The joy that I get from giving someone that eye-opening moment about, ‘Oh, that’s what that is, and this is why it’s important,’ brings me back to the first job I did on my car. That’s something I can get over and over again every time I teach.”

“Grease and Grit: A Female Mechanic’s Tale of Resilience” at the M.V. Museum, on May 20 from 5:30 to 7 pm.