Rosaria DeBenedetto Martinico, known as Sara, celebrated her 104th birthday July 18 with about 300 family members and friends at her Troy apartment complex, Oakland Park Towers, where she’s lived for 30 years. When she is asked about the secret of her longevity, she says, “I don’t know.”
She hastens to add that her family is the most important thing in her life and she loved to dance. Martinico has two daughters, eight grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and eight great-great grandchildren.
The party mushroomed from what Martinico’s neighbor and friend, Valerie MacQuarrie, started to plan.
“When people found out it was for Sara, they said, ‘What can I do?’” MacQuarrie said. “It was quite a party. Everyone swarmed her at her party. She’s so easy to talk to.”
“You would never think she is 104,” said Troy City Council member Ellen Hodorek, who attended Martinico’s birthday party. “It was so uplifting to be there.”
“I have a lot of ‘adopted children.’ They’ve lost their mother and they want me to be their mother,” Martinico said.
“All my friends call her ‘Mom,’” said her daughter, Betty Strnad, age 85.
Martinico is the sixth of 10 children born to Italian immigrant parents Josephine and Vincent DeBenedetto who settled in the Santa Maria Catholic Church parish on the border of Highland Park. Her father worked in a Ford plant making $5 a day.
“He was so thrilled,” Martinico said. He later became a successful real estate agent.
Martinico attended the Sawyer School in Detroit and got good grades. She left school at her parents’ insistence in the 10th grade.
Her oldest brother, Tony, who suffered a lung injury serving overseas in World War I, taught her and her sisters how to dance the Charleston, much to their strict mother’s chagrin.
Her father took the oldest children to the movies to see silent westerns at the local movie house. “We had lights and a phone,” Martinico said. She rode in her uncle’s Model T and listened to music on the Victrola.
“That was our fun. We all liked to dance. We were never lonely. We all stuck together,” Martinico said.
Her mother, whom Martinico described as “very religious,” cooked for the large family on a coal stove.
“They were a very close family,” said Strnad. “(Sara’s) life was her children.
“I was so happy I had my girls,” Martinico said.
She never dated her husband Vito, known as Bill, unchaperoned until she married him at age 17. She gave birth to two daughters, Betty and Josephine, who married brothers and have the same last name of Strnad. She and Vito were married 56 years until he passed away in 1985.
Martinico said she sewed all the families’ clothes, paid all the bills since her husband “was from the old country and (she) understood those things better,” and taught both daughters to read before they went to school.
She went to work for the war effort during World War II at the Murray Body plant in Detroit making airplanes when her daughters were teenagers.
“They call me Rosie the Riveter,” Martinico said. “If you don’t put the rivets on the right place, the planes might have blown up. When the war was over, they fired everybody to call the former workers back, but they kept me. It was nice. I had a lot of friends there.”
The company wanted her to work the night shift, but her husband didn’t want her to work nights, so she quit.
Martinico lives in her apartment throughout the week and stays with her daughters on the weekends. She enjoys her family get-togethers.
She has her hair styled every week and looks forward to bingo starting back up again in her apartment building. Martinico said she doesn’t watch much TV.
Martinico has a pacemaker, uses a walker, has a cleaning lady, gets Meals on Wheels and pays her own bills.
She doesn’t speak Italian anymore, but can understand a bit.
“They were not allowed to speak Italian at home,” Betty said.
“I love to read,” Martinico said. Her preferred genre is romances, which she borrows from the apartment complex library.
She’s traveled to Europe and Hawaii with her husband, and won first prize in a dancing contest doing the waltz during a trip to Hawaii to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
“Maybe that’s why I married him, because he was a good dancer. I loved to dance,” Martinico said.
“I’m so lucky to have a big family,” Martinico said. “We get along so good.”