When Marcia Keahey asked her mother what she wanted for her 100th birthday, Frances Cullen Howson gave a remarkable – yet simple – response.
“She said she wanted to dance,” said the proud daughter, who granted her mother just that Tuesday afternoon during the first of several community celebrations planned for Howson at the Live Oak Adult Care Services facility on West Sixth Street in Gilroy.
With Keahey holding one hand and great-granddaughter, Janet Krulee, holding the other, Howsen bopped and swayed to the beats of one of her favorite groups, the local ragtime duet of Chris and Jack Bradshaw, who got the party grooving with hits such as “South Valley Rag” and “Kangaroo Hop”.
“I’m the luckiest one because I’ve got the most time with her,” said Krulee, the oldest of Howson’s 17 great- grandchildren. “She taught us CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine). She sat and read with us all through our childhood. She’s our matriarch. We’re a tight-knit, very involved family and she set that standard.”
Howson and her late husband, Bob, had three children – Marcia, Roberta and Ronald – and the family tree continues to grow as the years pass. Presently, the tally sits at nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great grandchildren.
“She has had a good life. She was a very kind and loving mother,” said daughter Roberta Hughan, a UC Berkeley graduate, first woman to serve on the Gilroy City Council in 1977 and, in 1983, Gilroy’s first and only female mayor. “She was very, very active always in the community, with her family and her church.”
Born on East Lewis Street in Gilroy on Feb. 19, 1913, Howson is the oldest living graduate of St. Mary’s School on First Street and active member of St. Mary’s Parish, which will also help celebrate Howson’s decades of community activism, volunteerism and genuine good graces with a special birthday blessing during Sunday’s 11:45 a.m. mass. A party will follow afterwards.
“Frances was always available to sing at the funeral choir and at the 8:15 a.m. mass,” said Rose Barry, a member of St. Mary’s since 1989 and a pastoral associate since 2003. “The lady was everywhere. She’s just phenomenal, just a woman who truly lives her faith.”
Howson took on many roles with the congregation, including singing with several choirs and teaching the her faith as a catechist.
“She’s been a marvelous woman over the years. The family has always been very active in the church,” said newly retired pastor Dan Derry, who spent the last 17 years working at St. Mary’s. “She deserves great honor and respect for what she’s done for the parish, for the city and for the community.”
At the senior care facility Tuesday, Howson – dressed up like the proud birthday gal with a long red dress, black suede boots and a long, blue sweater jacket with a sequenced trim – was joined by old friends, family members and staff.
“She loved to dance. She would always be up on her feet dancing whenever she had the chance,” said Live Oak Program Director Cheryl Huguenor, who welcomed Howson with a birthday tiara as well as a bouquet of flowers. “Beautiful smile, really warm personality, a favorite of ours. She has one of those smiles that light up the room.”
“She’s just a ray of sunshine, just a beautiful lady to have in our program,” added Live Oak Assistant Director Gloria Martinez-King.
And Tuesday was no different as Howson – a Gilroy native who has called the Garlic Capital her home for a century – was all smiles as she shared dances to the ragtime tunes with her daughter and great-granddaughter.
“It’s hard to even imagine or say or have heard of a 100th birthday,” said Howson as she took a break from dancing.
Being “full-blooded Irish is what we let her take credit for,” joked Marcia, giving one reason for her mother’s longevity. “She’s a very, very selfless person. She always has been. She’s giving, giving, giving. I guess when you’re happy, you live longer.”
Keahey shared stories from her mother’s past with everyone in attendance, such as how Howson’s father worked for the City of Gilroy and pulled the water wagon down Church Street, which was a dirt road at the time, and how young Frances Howson would take a book to read while allowing a family cow to graze in the open field west of Hanna Street.
“She’s seen the city (population) go from hundreds to 50,000 or whatever it is now,” said Keahey. “She’s always been very active. She took care of herself until she was 95. She was still driving at 95.”
Even Mayor Don Gage arrived to present Howson with a proclamation from the city. Gage first spoke with Howson, first wondering if she remembered him and then telling her that his grandmother lived until she was 109.
“It’s not so much about the proclamation as it is about celebrating her 100th birthday and getting together,” said Gage, who served on the City Council under the eight-year mayoral leadership of Howson’s daughter, Roberta, and then succeeded her as mayor of Gilroy during his first term in 1991.
At St. Mary’s School, students are writing birthday cards for Howson – who was the founder and first president of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in Gilroy.
“She’s one of the reasons we anchored here because we all want our children to know her,” said Krulee, who set up a cupcake birthday stand and three numbered candles (1-0-0) on a table. “She instilled the values of volunteerism and activism in all of us.”
Besides singing with several St. Mary’s choirs, Howson regularly went to sing with patients in local nursing homes and was a member of the Side by Siders singing group, which got together for a performance at Tuesday’s birthday celebration.
Her active and caring lifestyle started at an early age when an 18-year-old Howson became a member of the Catholic Ladies Aides Society. Later on at age 64, Howson – who was honored as the 1971 Outstanding Woman of the Year by the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce – went to Mexico to volunteer at an orphanage.
“She has always loved children,” said Marcia of her mother who also raised six foster children from 1957-1970.
“Frances was a Cullen and the Cullens have been here for a long, long time,” added Gage.
The Cullens were a pioneer family. Howson’s father came to Gilroy in 1868. She is the niece of Catherine Dunne, who had a main street in Morgan Hill named after her, Dunne Avenue.
Her first husband, Bob, was a contractor with Howson Brothers, who built many custom homes in Gilroy as well as churches, public and commercial buildings and military buildings in the 1940s. The family home had the first residential pool in town in 1948.
“My mom would say, ‘they can come here and swim, but I’m not feeding them all,” laughed Keahey.
Howson’s life spans 17 presidencies, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, elected 28th President of the United States on March 4, 1913 and continuing with President Barack Obama as the 44th U.S. President elected on January 20, 2009.
In 1913, her birth year, the United States ratified the 16th (federal income tax) and the 17th (direct election of senators) Amendments. That same year, the first sedan-type car, a Hudson, went on display at the 13th Auto Show in New York City; Charlie Chaplin began his film career at Keystone; and the Brooklyn Dodgers played their first game at Ebbets Field.
This article will also appear in the upcoming Feb. 22 print edition of the Gilroy Dispatch.