ROCKLEIGH, N.J. — Bessye Shulman of Hillsdale sat quietly, dabbing at her eyes, as family and friends at the Gallen Adult Day Center in Rockleigh celebrated her 100th birthday Wednesday.
There was cake, music, and plenty of testimonials pointing out her grace, motherliness, intuition, and wisdom.
“My mother died at 57 and, if I was to choose a mother, I would choose you,” said Carol Stein, Shulman’s friend for four years at Gallen, at the Jewish Home Family.
Stein presented Shulman with a wrist corsage.
“That was really nice,” Shulman replied.
Cathy O’Donnell, who has been going to the center for 13 years, has known Shulman since she joined a decade ago.
“Bessye, you’re more than a Bingo buddy,” said an emotional O’Donnell. “You are an inspiration and one of my best friends. I love you very much. You’re like the grandma that I didn’t have.”
Shulman brought her tissue to her face.
“It’s a good thing I don’t wear makeup,” she said.
As part of the festivities, Norwood Mayor James Barsa read a borough proclamation declaring Sept. 5 “Bessye Shulman Day.”
Also, Carol Silver-Elliott, chief executive officer and president of Jewish Home Family, read a personalized card from The White House signed by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Shulman, who was born Sept. 5, 1916 to Yetta and Sam Hyatt of Annapolis, Maryland, has three siblings.
Her sister, Tillie, who still lives in Maryland, will turn 101 in October.
Her baby brother, Bernie, will turn 93 in October.
A fourth sibling, Joe, died of an infection at age 27.
“That was before penicillin,” explained Diane Berman of Hillsdale, Shulman’s daughter and only child.
Though Shulman was offered an academic scholarship to college, she didn’t go because she couldn’t afford the room and board. So she moved to Baltimore, studied business skills, and worked for years as secretary to the head of an umbrella company.
She met her husband, Rubin Shulman, at a dance at Fort Meade and waited for him during the war.
After storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day, Rubin Shulman lost his right leg to a mortar shell. Bessye again waited for him to recuperate at what was then known as Walter Reed General Hospital.
The couple moved to New Jersey in the 1980s to be near their daughter and three grandchildren, Jamie, Matthew, and Brian.
Rubin Shulman died in 2002.
Today Shulman lives with her daughter.