Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Birthday honorees shaped South Hadley history

Birthday honorees shaped South Hadley history

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

If there is such a thing as birthday party protocol, this was one celebration that went just fine without following it to the letter.

Had the accumulated years of the honorees at the birthday bash thrown by the South Hadley Council on Aging for the town's residents who are 90 or older each been represented by a candle, as is customary, the staff would have been lugging 4,460 of the creations into the Dayton Street building.

But none of the more than 55 seniors and their guests seemed to miss, or even care, that they didn't have a chance to blow out any candles on June 24. They were too busy feasting on strawberry shortcake and sharing their joy in being able to celebrate such a landmark together with their family and, in some cases, longtime friends.

"I know they really appreciate it," said COA director Joanne K. Trybus. "The thank you notes I get ..."

The event, now a yearly fixture, began under former head Marilyn G. Ishler in the mid-1990s as a catered luncheon, but grew so quickly that such a format became logistically difficult. Thus, Trybus switched to a party instead, but she said even that may soon outgrow its dining room bounds. More than 160 South Hadley residents are 90 and over; each was invited to the party.

Along with the requisite party trappings - balloons aplenty bunched above each table and robust renditions of "Happy Birthday" - as well as congratulatory speeches, special citations for the partyers from state Rep. John Scibak's office and proclamations for two 100-plus honorees issued by Scibak and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, the fete also served as unintentional festivities for many of those who helped shape much of the town's recent history.

In essence, many who shaped everyday life in 20th century South Hadley were at the heart of the celebration. Teachers, engineers, restaurateurs and homemakers, among others, were sprinkled throughout the room. Their common denominator: lives devoted to one town for most, if not all, of their 90-plus years.

Like 93-year-old Norman Reed, whose homes on Granby Road, Lamb Street, Kenlee Gardens and Alvord Place constitute a virtual road map of older and newer South Hadley. After being born "on a kitchen table at midnight," according his wife, Pauline, he later served in World War II before embarking on a 36-year career as a steam engineer at Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

And Bernadette "Bernie" Blood, who has been interviewed at length on South Hadley cable TV about the town's history. At age 94, she still lives in her childhood home on South Street and attends St. Patrick's Church, which years ago sponsored her fondly remembered youthful outings to Lake Aldrich.

"Oh, those were our big day," she said. "We would look forward to them so much."

At another table sat Rita Perron, 92, the matriarch of the family that owns and operates the Egg & I and The Roost restaurants, a town landmark that is now a three-generation enterprise. Dianne, her daughter-in-law, was in attendance as well, camera in hand this time instead of a menu or plate.

There was 97-year-old Marion Methot, a former elementary school teacher - "always the fifth grade" - at the Center School, who talked of still being recognized by her former students despite her retirement a generation ago, in 1971.

"I don't always remember them, but they know me," said Methot, who was featured in a 2005 South Hadley cable show that documented a reunion of the Class of 1953 from the now-closed school.

From Marion Ittner, her 90th birthday awaiting the lifelong Lyman Street resident in September, to two women who have surpassed the century mark, 100-year-old Bella St. Sauveur and Mary Jane Chartier, at 102 the town's oldest resident, to those in between, the attendees made the afternoon an extraordinary treat, with or without the strawberry sweets.

Including a lot of South Hadley history to go around.

Judy Van Handle is a member of the South Hadley Historical Society.

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