Closer Look

Centenarian ‘Rosies’ celebrate milestone birthday

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Deena Bouknight

Two Macon County women recently became centenarian; their lives have spanned a whole century. United States statistics indicate that only less than 1% of the population reaches 100 years of age, yet Martha Elizabeth Craft Castiglione and Olga Pellicer Bell – both long-time residents of Macon County – can boast of that distinction. 

Olga Miller, Bell’s daughter, noted just what was happening in the world when her mother and Castiglione were born: “In 1923, a group of scientists won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin. Yankee Stadium opened its doors with a game against the Boston Red Sox. The Walt Disney Company was founded. So was the Republic of Turkey. The life expectancy for women in the U.S. was 59.”

Olga Pellicer Bell was named #3065 “Rosie the Riveter” for the World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif.

Both women became “Rosie the Riveters,” meaning that between 1940 and 1945, they both joined other women in the U.S. workforce, which increased at that time from 27% to nearly 37%; in fact, one out of every four married women worked outside the home during the war. 

On the table, next the 100th birthday cake at Castiglione’s Oct. 28 birthday party, attended by at least 150 people, was a photograph of her in her jumpsuit, since she worked for a fighter plane manufacturer.

Castiglione was born in Hallandale, Fla., on Oct. 28, 1923. She was one of six girls and graduated from high school in 1941. After graduation, she went to technical school in Miami, Fla., to learn riveting and worked for Consolidated Vultee Aircraft riveting ribs and cowlings for fighter planes. 

Castiglione eventually worked on an Army base and for the Weather Bureau before meeting and marrying Air Force Major Frank Castiglione, II, in 1949. They traveled the world, had two children, and enjoyed togetherness for 32 years, until Frank died. 

The couple settled in Franklin in 1978 and Castiglione became a realtor, volunteered at Angel Medical Center as a “pink lady” helper, provided Meals on Wheels, and enjoyed dancing, gardening, painting, and playing cards with friends. 

Centenarian Martha Elizabeth Craft Castiglione was a “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II, working on fighter planes. 

The entire venue for Castiglione’s party, which included a DJ, food, dancing, and toasts, was decked out in pink, her favorite color to wear. Atlanta, Ga.-based Laura Best, her niece, as well as other family members, hosted the event. 

At the end of the night, birthday party attendees lit sparklers and sang to Castiglione, the belle of the ball.

Two of her three surviving sisters were able to attend the birthday party celebration. She has one grandson, Preston Samowitz, acquiring his Ph.D. in Florida, and he attended as well.

“She’s just so sharp,” said Beverly Driscoll, a long-time friend. “Always has been. And I’ve never seen her not happy and smiling.”

Shared friend, 86-year-old Ken Bingham, “She’s always talkative and full of stories … just a great person – always there for me and so many other people.”

Said daughter, Janis Samowitz of Macon County, who lives with and assists her mother, “I’m just so thrilled that so many people came to honor her. It shows just how wonderful a person she has been. She absolutely loved this party and seeing everyone, and I’m so glad.” 

Bell a Riveter, Too

Born on Nov. 19, 1923, in New York City to Puerto Rican immigrant parents, Bell also became a Rosie the Riveter. She learned, about 30 years ago, via a letter in the mail, that she was recognized as # 3056 Rosie the Riveter for the World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif. 

She has five children, seven grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild, with another due April 2024. 

About her work in the 1940s, she said, “I am so grateful that they have acknowledged the fact that women had played a large part in that war.”

She added, “We were all so very patriotic [especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor]. We were fighting the worst crime that had ever been committed against our country. Mom and my aunt Maria worked very long hours in a factory sewing uniforms. My sister, Nellie, worked as a welder in the shipyards with me. My job title was that of a ‘burner.’ The ship fitter would mark out where a hatchway or porthole was going to be placed and I would cut or burn it out with my acetylene torch. We all wore our work uniforms, to and from work, with pride to show that we were doing our part in this war. I wore tan army pants, a black turtle neck shirt, and army boots. In the winter, I would wear a heavy wool navy pea jacket.”

Martha Elizabeth Craft Castiglione received a visit from Senator Kevin Corbin at 100th birthday party on Oct. 28 that drew at least 150 attendees. Corbin presented her with a special certificate from the State of North Carolina. Pictured from left are Paul Sanderson, Castiglione, Preston Samowitz, Corbin, Laura Best and Janis Samowitz.

She also remembered the fun parts of being a Rosie the Riveter: “Mom would take my sisters and I to the USO canteen on Saturday nights to help entertain the servicemen. We helped in the kitchen and acted as hostesses. Mom and my aunts would help by overseeing with the others parents. We also danced with the servicemen.”

Miller, who along with her husband, Tom Miller, cares for Bell in their home, explained that her 100-year-old mother “comes from a long line of healthy women, who lived almost to 100. She lost her mother at the age of 98 and her sister last year at the age of 96. She worked outside the home from her teenage years until her retirement when she was 70. She was physically strong, always tackling home improvement projects, such as laying floor tile in her homes and pavers in her yard. She loved yard work and gardening during her years in Florida.”

In her later years, Bell became active in Franklin’s Senior Center. She participated in writing classes and began writing her memoirs. She also learned, on her own, the art of clay sculpting and portraiture. 

Bell currently spends her days navigating her smart tablet, playing games, sending and answering emails, and generally keeping updated with world affairs. She also continues to write her memoirs, which she started 20 years ago, and enjoys bird watching from her back porch.

Both women received a 100th birthday-recognition certificate from the State of North Carolina, and Senator Kevin Corbin of the 50th District attended Castiglione’s birthday party to present hers in person and speak to attendees. 

Castiglione also received a happy birthday letter from Senator Thom Tillis and his wife, Susan. In the letter he pointed out, “In your lifetime, you have witnessed our nation’s greatest challenges and triumphs, and the memories you carry are priceless. We hope you have a wonderful day of celebration.”