On Thanksgiving Day, Betty Montefusco turned 90. Two days later, her family hosted a birthday bash for her at the Holiday Inn at 10th and Packer.
"I hope to live a little longer," she says with a humble smile.
Montefusco certainly isn’t through yet. The spry elder has plenty to tend to in her twilight years, just as she’s had in her younger years — mainly, the veterans of war.
The wife of a military man, Montefusco devoted most of her life to veterans’ causes, from collecting donations that were shipped overseas to attending countless memorial services across the country for fallen war heroes. "We lost so many soldiers," she reflects.
For more than 40 years, Montefusco has been a member of the Auxiliary to the Society of the 28th Division of the National Guard. Women make up the auxiliary while national guardsmen comprise the division. From 1959-60, 1995-97 and the last four years, Montefusco has served as the national president of the auxiliary.
In her role, she presides over auxiliaries throughout the United States. As such, travel has played a large part in Montefusco’s job — though she’s had to cut back in recent years. She still drives and travels by plane where she can, however.
Traveling was also one of her and her late husband’s favorite hobbies. There isn’t a state in the union Montefusco hasn’t visited at least once. Texas and New Orleans are among her favorite spots.
To survive the better part of a century in fine health and enjoy good times while serving worthy causes is a milestone in itself. And to come through it all with only one regret is even more remarkable.
For Montefusco, that sole disappointment involves the road she didn’t get to travel — a trip to Italy she had planned for herself after her husband, National Guard Col. Edward Montefusco, died nine years ago.
Born and raised at 13th and Wharton streets, the colonel suffered a stroke in the last decade of his life. Unable to speak, he was bedridden for the final four months of his life — yet the 90-year-old understood every word uttered by friends and family, his wife says. Betty misses her husband still.
"He was a good man," she says. "He worked to make sure I was taken care of."
As for her trip to Italy, Montefusco says she doesn’t remember exactly what happened — just that the venture fell through.
But, Italy or not, ah, the memories …
Montefusco giggles when she recalls how she met the man she would one day call her husband.
She was friendly with Edward Montefusco’s sister and was visiting one day when the doorbell rang. That’s when the dashing Edward, then 25, made his entrance into 16-year-old Betty’s life. After lunch, he offered to escort her home.
"And after that, I kept going with him," she recounts. "He was nice looking! All the girls went nuts over him."
In 1936, the couple wed. Edward worked as a plumber at the old Navy Yard and enlisted in the 28th Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard. The soldier started as a private and, by the time he entered World War II, was a lieutenant colonel. Half of his division was stationed in Europe and the remainder in the Pacific. Edward got the latter deployment.
By the time the war ended, he had made the rank of colonel.
Betty’s service to her country has been her active auxiliary duty. About 75 members — 20 of whom hail from South Philly — still belong to the local chapter. The group used to meet at the old armory at Broad and Wharton but now convenes in North Philly. For 20 years, the auxiliary held its annual convention in Wildwood.
Those were some good times, the national president admits.
"[Members] came from all over. We filled four motels!" she says with a laugh. The convention now takes place at the national shrine of the Society of the 28th Division in Boalsburg, Pa.
Members of the auxiliary and the 28th Division attended Montefusco’s birthday dinner at the Holiday Inn.
Born Betty Drames, Montefusco is a second-generation South Philadelphian. Her parents, who emigrated from Italy, settled on 11th Street between Mifflin and McKean. The oldest of eight children — seven girls and one boy — Betty was born and raised there.
Having left school after the sixth grade, as many did in her day, Montefusco eventually went to work at age 16 in a nearby Laundromat. Her next job was at a cigar factory in Southwest Philly.
When she and Edward married, Montefusco recalls, she asked her father for money to purchase a house. The newlyweds bought a home on the 2600 block of South Sartain Street, where she still lives today.
The couple had one son, John, a truck driver who died at age 64.
"I loved my son," Montefusco says with sadness. "He was a nice man. I hated to see him go. He died before my husband. That was a sad case."
Montefusco’s remaining family includes three grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and eight great-nieces and nephews.
Three of Montefusco’s own siblings have passed on, while the remaining ones live all over the country — California, Florida and Connecticut. But she got to see her entire family at Saturday’s birthday bash, which one of her nieces arranged. Another niece, a nun who lives in North Philly, led the invocation at the celebration. Yet another niece made the party favors.
The just-turned-90-year-old says she has always wanted to write a book about her life.
Because, in Betty Montefusco’s words, "I had a wonderful life."