A first-class stamp cost 3 cents. A gyrating Elvis Presley sent teenage girls into a tizzy with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Dwight Eisenhower was living in the White House.
And Rose Jewell sang her first notes with the choir at Christ the King Catholic Church. It was 1956.
Rose just celebrated her 100th birthday. And while everything else has changed, she’s still with the choir.
“Oh, it’s just another day,” she says, waving her hand. “But I do like to see people’s faces when I tell them that.”
According to the 2010 Census data, the centenarian population has grown 66 percent over the past three decades, to 53,364 people in the U.S. who are 100 and older.
Choir director Marty Purtell doesn’t know how many of those are still belting out hymns with a church music group. But he thinks Rose could very well hold the record.
“She’s an amazing alto,” he says. “Very strong. And she’s a delight. A great wit and a great community builder.”
When Rose moved to Tampa in 1956 with her late husband, a retired Army intelligence officer, she immediately sought out the nearest Catholic church and school for their three young daughters.
She was an accomplished seamstress, amateur artist and a part-time piano teacher. But what she loved best was to sing, picking up musical notes by ear. As a teen, she won a radio contest for her ability to carry a tune.
“I used to be a high soprano,” she confides. Age has taken a toll on her ability to hit those high notes. Now she settles for alto.
Rose joined the choir right away. It was an avenue to make new friends and express her faith through song.
What she likes best about church choirs, she says, is that the congregation has to stay and listen, “whether they want to or not.” She’s proud that she’s never actually seen someone get up and walk out on her singing.
Purtell says in this day and age, people struggle with commitment. Not Rose, who shows up “month after month, year after year, decade after decade.” He marvels at the example she sets for others.
And what has kept her so committed to the choir?
“I like the sound of my own voice,” she says in a serious tone. Then she breaks out in laughter — something she does a lot.
Fellow choir member Mary Jo Hathaway says Rose’s easy-going nature and good humor make her “a delight to be around.” That she still has the drive to make it to practice is an inspiration to everyone in the church’s 61-person music program.
“I graduated from Plant High in 1950, so I’m getting up in years, too,” says Hathaway, 80. “But could I still be doing this in 20 years? That is hard to imagine.”
Health issues and those perilous 18 steps up to the choir loft have ended the choir career of several former members. It was becoming more and more difficult for Rose to navigate those stairs, particularly in the mornings when, she says, her bones “aren’t warmed up enough.”
But Rose wasn’t the only one hindered by the uphill climb. So several members launched a campaign for the church to purchase a chair lift.
They compiled statistics and circulated a questionnaire among members to support their case. The average age of the respondents was 65, representing 1,194 years of Christ the King parish membership. Three of those, including Rose, have been singing with the choir for more than 50 years.
Sixteen admitted to having “consistent, ongoing problems” climbing the stairs; another 25 said they would use the lift when necessary.
Earlier this month, their prayers were answered. The church purchased a $4,000 lift. Rose is delighted.
So is fellow choir member Betty Jo Faulk. It will make it possible for Rose – and others with physical limitations – to keep participating.
“Rosie is very special to us. We want her around as long as possible,” Faulk says. “Her dedication is a beautiful thing to witness.”
Rose says she’s grateful for all the support she gets from church members, who recently surprised her with a “Happy Birthday” serenade at the 11 a.m. Mass. She’s also grateful to her daughter, Kathleen, 65, who lives with her and oversees her care. Her other surviving daughter, Christina, lives in St. Petersburg and stays in close touch.
She says she really doesn’t have a secret to longevity, other than to “live a simple life.” Half the joy she gets out of life comes from music, she says: singing it, playing it and listening to it.
What about the other half?
“Well, it’s not washing dishes,” Rose says, laughing again.