‘A wonderful life’: Altoona native celebrating her centennial
Altoona native Bertha Rose sits in her favorite chair impeccably dressed in navy slacks, a matching top embellished with lavender and pink flowers and round pearl earrings.
Her voice is firm and her memories clear as she approaches her 100th birthday Wednesday.
Bertha explains her oldest son Charles, 76, is taking her out to dinner at the Allegro Restaurant.
It’s a weekly ritual that Charles, Bertha and Charles’ wife, Sharon, started about a year ago.
“We love to take her out, and she loves to go out,” Charles said. “But she’s a typical mother and doesn’t want me to spend a lot of money. She worries constantly and tries to feed me all the right foods.”
And if her meal isn’t prepared to her liking, she doesn’t hesitate to send it back, Charles said, with a chuckle.
“She’s as honest as the day is long. It doesn’t matter if your opinion is different from hers, she says what she wants to say and doesn’t back off. The older she gets the more direct she is — we have a lot of fun.”
Bertha’s youngest child, John Ebersole, recounts a similar story where his mother’s determination to watch him play college football altered his plans.
Ebersole played linebacker for Penn State in the late 1960s before being drafted by the New York Jets in the fourth round in 1970, where he played for seven years.
Speaking by phone from his home in Mount Pleasant, S.C., John credited his mother for his college choice.
“I’d signed to go to Kentucky and she said, ‘No, it’s too far away. You can’t go there. You have to go to Penn State.’ It was so she could watch me play. She is an amazing woman.”
We always called her Big Bertha, but she was only 4-foot-11,” John continued. “As little as she was, she was mighty. We all respected her and listened to her.”
Bertha said she enjoyed John’s football career.
“I got to meet some great people like Joe Namath and Joe Paterno,” she said, “and I got to visit some incredibly beautiful houses.”
While she’s experienced a few falls recently, Bertha’s health remains good.
“I remember all the grandchildren and all the great-grandchildren’s birthdays,” she said proudly. It’s no easy task with 19 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
“I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful life,” Bertha said. “I’ve seen my children married and my grandchildren married, so now I’d like to see my great-grandsons married.”
An avid Sudoku puzzle worker, this great-great grandmother uses social media and plays games and solitaire on her iPad. And, she drinks one glass of red wine daily at 3 p.m.
“The good Lord has been so very good to me,” she said, “When the end comes, I’ll accept it and at the same time thank him for such a good life.”
Yet, she’s endured several personal tragedies.
Born Bertha Bernice Swartz, her parents lost an unborn son during the Spanish Flu pandemic and Bertha was born near its end in 1920. Bertha’s daughter, Margaret “Peggy” Ebersole, said,
“My mother lived through the Great Depression in 1929 that lasted until 1933; World War II from 1939 to 1945; D-Day on June 6, 1944; the Korean conflict from 1950-1953, and all subsequent conflicts. I think a lot of people — especially young people — take a lot for granted.”
A childhood without television, video games and cellphones is hard for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grasp, Bertha said. Instead, she and her friends entertained themselves by playing outside and walking to the State, Capitol and Olympic theaters to see black and white movies.
Bertha remembers rationing during WWII — “You couldn’t get butter. They only had lard,” she said.
Her late parents, Lewis Ellis and Margaret Grace (White) Swartz, didn’t have a car, so Bertha walked from the Fairview section of Altoona to Keith Junior High School and then to the Altoona High School, where she served as homeroom secretary, vice president and participated in many activities, including the National Honor Society for the Commercial Program.
While Bertha was in high school, her father, a railroad mechanic, developed multiple eye tumors that were removed at the world-famous Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. While he eventually returned to work post-surgery, he died of a brain tumor in 1945. Her mother died six years later in 1951, at age 58.
“That was the toughest time,” Bertha said. “I was so young.”
She was 25 when her father died and 31 when her mother died.
Tragedy hit again in 1961. Bertha’s husband, John, known as Jack, died suddenly of a massive heart attack after 24 years of marriage, when he was 47 years old.
“I remember sitting on my Dad’s lap on the porch and asking him for money,” Peggy said. “He told me to get the pop bottles and return them for deposit and use that change. He left for an insurance sales call and that was the last I talked to him.”
A large man at 6-foot-4 inches and about 300 pounds, her father had numerous heart attacks, Peggy said, caused by coronary artery disease, a condition that’s treatable today.
So, at age 41, Bertha had to raise Charles, 15, Peggy, 12, and John, 11 — as well as return to work for Bell Telephone Co. as an operator, a position she held prior to her marriage.
In 1961, very few women with children worked. Bell Telephone Co., considered Bertha’s circumstances a “hardship” and allowed her to return, Bertha said. She worked the 3 to 11 p.m. shift, so Peggy assumed many household duties and neighbors would watch out for them, Peggy said.
“She’s amazing — just the fact that she raised three kids by herself,” her son, John, said. “My Mom really had to be both mother and father.”
Her life was busy, Bertha said, and she never expected to find love again. But when a co-worker offered to set her up on a blind date with a widower who had three kids, she accepted. Bertha calls meeting Chester “Chet” Rose, a former high school classmate, on that blind date “the second best thing to happen in my life — second only to having my children.”
They married in 1968 and enjoyed a 48-year union until Chet’s death four years ago at age 97.
Their marriage was filled with fun, meeting new people and visiting new places, Bertha said, as they traveled across the country in a pull-style camper and spent 30-plus winters in Florida.
“We had such good times traveling,” Bertha said, naming San Antonio, Texas, as her favorite place.
Chet and Bertha flew home from Florida in 1979, when Peggy’s husband was killed when a tractor-trailer jackknifed and hit his car. Like her mother, she was left a young widow to raise two children.
Chet and Bertha’s support helped her immensely then and through other troubling times, Peggy said, so when she retired 11 years ago, she moved in with Chet and Bertha to help.
When Peggy goes out, Charles takes his turn with Bertha, he said. All three children are grateful for their mother’s love, sacrifice and support over the years.
“I am blessed to still have my mother in my life. She’s been a blessing to all of us,” Peggy said. “Taking care of her has been my pleasure. She’s such a wealth of knowledge. … I’m glad I can be here for her.”