A voice rang out amid the crowd of revelers surrounding Betty Negro.
“Betty, are you speechless?”
Betty nodded her head, saying not a word.
“I’ve never seen her speechless!” the woman remarked.
It may have taken a century, but yes, Betty was at a loss for words at the outpouring of love she felt Saturday afternoon, as approximately 100 guests gathered at the Birchwood of Polish Town in Riverhead sang “Happy Birthday.”
Betty had just blown out the candles on her cake, which read “Happy 100th Birthday Betty” in green icing, when she began to hug some of her closest friends. An impromptu reprise of “Happy Birthday” began.
Betty, a woman with a firecracker personality, sat in a chair, held a napkin to her face and wiped away tears.
“When I started to cut the cake, I realized all these people that came,” she said. “It was awesome, really awesome.”
You need to spend only a few minutes around Betty to get a sense of who she is. When I met her Saturday, her first comment was: “Have you ever seen anyone 100 before? They were probably in a wheelchair!”
Betty loves to joke. And she speaks her mind. Always has, and that hasn’t changed since turning 100.
She officially reached the centenarian mark April 19.
“My doctor says I’m going to live another 100 years,” she told me. “I’m going to hold him to that.”
Reaching 100 may not be as rare a milestone as it once was. According to the 2010 census, there were 53,364 people age 100 and older in the U.S., nearly 80 percent of them women. That figure will likely rise after the next census. But you’d be hard pressed to many centenarians with Betty’s mobility, independence and wit. She lives alone at the Riverhead Landing senior apartments on Middle Road. She enjoys entertaining and frequently cooks big Italian dinners for her friends.
When we spoke on the phone Monday afternoon, she was finishing a glass of wine with a friend after they ate lunch.
“I have a glass of wine every single night,” she said.
Born in Brooklyn April 19, 1918, Betty was the only girl among seven siblings. She had four older brothers and two younger. The last of them died four years ago, she said. All her siblings lived into their 80s.
She married Frank Negro in 1947. They met after the war and settled in Brooklyn, where they lived until retirement. The couple never had children. Betty spent most of her working years as receptionist for a pair of eye doctors. She spent 25 years at one office and when that doctor retired, she switched to a new job, where she spent another 20 years.
“I love people,” she said. “I always had a job with the public … Two jobs my whole lifetime.”
Betty and Frank moved to Hollywood, Fla., after retirement and remained there for 18 years, until Frank died. At that point, she decided to move to Long Island to be near her niece Judith Memola of Calverton.
“If I had my way, I’d be back in Brooklyn,” she said. “You have access to everything. You can get the subway, the bus. Here, you’re really hampered. You have to have a car.”
Betty keeps busy during the days. She enjoys reading, anything from biographies to mysteries. Her friends take her shopping. And every Sunday she attends Mass at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead. She sits in the same row every week near the front, always dressed in her Sunday best.
At Saturday’s party, Father Larry Duncklee, pastor at St. John’s, spoke about Betty.
“We invited the pope,” he began, “and he wrote back and said, “It may not be good to be seen in your presence.’ So he sent a blessing instead.”
Father Duncklee presented Betty with a plaque featuring a blessing for her 100th birthday.
Carol Aspinall, a friend for more than a decade, organized the party. When she first approached Betty about the idea, she was hesitant. She didn’t think a party was necessary. But she quickly came around and presented Ms. Aspinall with a list of guests to invite.
After the party, Father Duncklee said he’s known Betty about seven years. She’s been an active member of the parish, he said, volunteering in many different ways, he said.
“She’s known as the parish matchmaker,” Father Duncklee added. “She’s hooked up a few people over the years.”
A few moments earlier, microphone in hand, Betty thanked everyone for attending the party — and specifically Father Duncklee.
“I asked you to marry me, but you said no,” she said. “I don’t know why you became a priest, you’re so handsome.”
The room burst into laughter. That’s Betty.
Photo caption: Betty Negro cuts her birthday cake toward the end of her party at the Birchwood in Riverhead last Saturday. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)
The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].