Betty Cowgill sat quietly in her chair with a smile stretched across her face and listened to the crowd in front of her.
“Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday, dear Betty. Happy Birthday,” sang family and friends gathered Saturday inside the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer – Cowgill Church for over seven decades.
Moments later, Cowgill looked at his cake, made a wish, and then blew out the candles.
Applause followed and Cowgill smiled once more.
After all, it’s not every day we turn 100, which Cowgill did on Thursday, October 7th.
And what a life it’s been too, she noted, full of adventure, patriotism, and a lot of love.
A farm girl from Tipton County, Cowgill’s first great adventure took her to the United States Coast Guard reservation during World War II as a member of the “Semper Paratus – Always Ready”, better known as the name of SPARS.
At the time, SPARS, along with the United States Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) equivalent, was used to authorize the engagement of women so that the military could release men from service at sea.
But for Cowgill, it simply meant an opportunity.
“It was a way for us to help win the war,” she said. âIt was a new step for the girls. â¦ I knew my parents would not be happy. They were afraid that I would hurt myself. It wasn’t a place for a girl, they said, but it turned out to be a wonderful place for a girl.
So, at age 21, Cowgill went to work for Uncle Sam, spending most of the next two years as a storekeeper in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi.
Thinking back to those days now, Cowgill said that she truly missed the women she had been fortunate enough to meet and work with, and that she wouldn’t trade those years of active service for nothing.
Neither did Captain Amy Beach of the United States Coast Guard.
Beach and several other Coast Guard members surprised Cowgill at Saturday’s ceremony, traveling from Louisville to participate.
And for Beach, Cowgill’s service all those years ago was actually pretty personal.
âIt is absolutely essential to bring to light the stories of people who have led the way, especially as a woman,â Beach said. âBeing able to pay tribute and thank those who came before us and who made it all possible is important to me. There’s a funny video you can find on YouTube that shows the SPARS while they were serving the Coast Guard at the time, and it says, “Someday too, you can be an Admiral’s secretary.”
âOf course we are all laughing now because the women are friends of the Coast Guard, but it took people (like Cowgill and others in SPARS) to get us to where we are today,â he said. added Beach. “Because of women like her in World War II, women like me can serve on active duty and be full time today.”
USCG Petty Officer Melissa Devore nodded in agreement with Beach’s comments.
âI think she (Cowgill) set a precedent,â said Devore, âto be able to do work that people thought women couldn’t or shouldn’t be allowed to do in a man’s world. She worked for it. Now we’re there years later, and we rock the house with everything we do, so I’m really honored to be here and honored to meet her.
In addition to the Coast Guard presence, Coast Guard Admiral Karl L. Schultz also wrote Cowgill a letter, which was posted near the church entrance on Saturday.
In it, Schultz spoke of Cowgill’s âselfless serviceâ to his country, as well as his dedication and sacrifice.
“Please know that the Coast Guard today is strong because of the long blue line of officials like you,” part of the letter read. âYou and your SPARS comrades continue to be an inspiration to those who follow in your footsteps. “
Cowgill was honorably discharged from the army in 1945.
The war was over and it was just time to come home, she said.
But often, where one adventure ends, another begins.
In 1948, Cowgill met a widowed father with three young daughters, and the couple ultimately fell in love.
âWhat I remember from that time is that we often had dates with them,â Cowgill’s daughter Clar Adele Coy told the crowd at the ceremony. âWhen the meeting was over, our father always accompanied him to the front door, leaving us three children in the car. But we all had our noses against the car window to see if our father was going to kiss her goodnight.
The couple married in December 1948 and welcomed another daughter together a few years later, forming the entire family of six.
âMy mother is such a dear person,â Coy said, when the Tribune asked him what her mother had meant to her all these years. âShe came to raise three daughters like hers, and we owe her a lot for taking our family back. â¦ And I know that day (celebration of Cowgill’s 100th birthday) makes her cry.
Throughout Saturday’s birthday party, sentiments along these lines were also shared on several occasions by those who know and love Cowgill.
And although she’s already had a lifetime of adventure, Cowgill herself has said she feels she has a long way to go.
âIt has all been very special,â she said, referring to her life. “… It just seems like it flew to me.”
Cowgill was then asked about her top longevity secrets, which she paused in lightly after saying every item.
âGood food. Exercise. Sleep, although I can’t really say that because I miss it a lot, but it’s important,â she said. âAnd for me, God is part of it too. gives you life. He gives us all life. And I think I was very lucky.