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October 3, 2012

Centenarian Kate Sullinger is still the life of the party

By Robin Ruehlen
C & G Staff Writer

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Centenarian Kate Sullinger is still the life of the party
Kate Rilette Sullinger, 100, of Beverly Hills poses with her friend of 83 years, Betty Petrucci. Sullinger celebrated her 100th birthday Sept. 29.

BEVERLY HILLS — Joann Leo uses one word to describe her 100-year-old mother, Kate Sullinger: glamorous.

“There was no meatloaf and housecoats for her when we were growing up,” Leo recalls.

“She was always throwing theme parties, and we always traveled. No matter where we were going, she would always say, ‘You go in there looking like John Jacob Astor’s pet horse.’ She wanted us to feel good about ourselves.”

On Sept. 29, Sullinger celebrated her first triple-digit birthday at the Beverly Hills home of her granddaughter, Joi Leo, surrounded by crowds of family and friends, old photos and a white tent decorated in pink lanterns. Seated next to her best friend of 83 years, Betty Petrucci, Sullinger nudges her.

“Who is this party for, anyway?” she jokes.

She tells stories of meeting several presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and her prized time of playing with the Detroit Drum & Bugle Corps on Belle Isle each Sunday. Her favorite movie star is still Greta Garbo.

“Nothing could be better,” she said of the gathering in her honor.  “But do I have to behave?”

Katherine Rilette was born in the small town of Coleman, Mich., located between Clare and Midland, but spent most of her life in the Birmingham/Beverly Hills area. She owned three dress shops in the mid-1900s, including a millinery and baby shop in the midst of the Depression that eventually closed because Sullinger donated much of the clothing to needy families.

Her husband, John Sullinger, was born in 1895 in Fredricksburg, Va. He attended the United States Military Academy in Washington, D.C, and became a corporal in the U.S. Army.  He lost half of a leg in the Battle of Argonne Forest in France in 1918, and went on to become the superintendent of the Detroit Water Board following his return from the war.

Although he was 17 years her senior, Sullinger said she knew he was the one for her the moment she met him.

“I almost passed out, he was so good-looking,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, he’ll never notice me.’ But I ended up marrying that handsome bugger after all.”

The couple went on to have two daughters and seven grandchildren, as well as 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson. John Sullinger died in 1988, after 52 years of marriage.

Daughter Patricia Ingle became choked up as she recalled how much her mother has done for the entire family over the years.

“Whenever anyone was ill, my mom was the one who stayed to take care of you,” she said.

“When my granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia, my mother was there. Whenever anyone needed anything, she was there.”

Granddaughter Allison Leo said her grandmother is always funny and always has a good time, wherever she may be.

“She used to have great theme parties where everyone would dress up – including everyone dressing like turkeys on Thanksgiving,” she said.

“She taught me to live on the wild side.”

Daughter Joann Leo agreed.

“She always was a speed demon, whether she was driving a car or a snowmobile. But she stays up until all hours playing solitaire and Rummikub on the computer now.”

Joi Leo said her grandmother reminds her of a character straight out of the comedy flick “Postcards From the Edge.”

“She was in the hospital this past year, and she kept telling the nurses that she was in the wrong room – that she should be on the maternity ward instead,” Joi Leo recalls.

“She has always been the life of the party.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Robin Ruehlen at rruehlen@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1105.