Royal Oakers unite to ring in neighbor’s 104th birthday

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published July 21, 2020

 Helen Demark, who has lived in Royal Oak for 65 years, waves to those celebrating her 104th birthday July 7. Pictured sitting is her niece, Susan Beyer, who traveled from Buffalo, New York, for the occasion.

Helen Demark, who has lived in Royal Oak for 65 years, waves to those celebrating her 104th birthday July 7. Pictured sitting is her niece, Susan Beyer, who traveled from Buffalo, New York, for the occasion.

Photo provided by Lindsay Warren

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ROYAL OAK — With little family left in the area, neighbors who are part of the Vinsetta East Homeowners Association got together to put on a surprise, socially-distanced parade in front of Helen Demark’s home to celebrate her 104th birthday July 7.

Led by flagbearers carrying Canadian and American flags as a tribute to Demark’s heritage — she is a Canadian citizen — and trailed by a police cruiser and fire truck, parade participants donned red and white, carried signs and sounded noisemakers along West Webster Road.

“July 7 was my birthday and, naturally, I was kind of jittery about it, and then the people came and wished me a happy birthday. They came down the street and waved and wished me a happy birthday,” Demark said. “I stood up and I waved back. It was an honor to have people come out of their houses and wish me a happy birthday.”

She received over 100 cards celebrating her birthday, as well as bouquets of flowers that made her living room resemble a florist shop, according Kathy Howell, the neighbor who organized the event.

Demark has lived in Royal Oak for 65 years. She was the eldest of seven sisters and grew up in Welland, Ontario, where she met her husband. The young couple ultimately settled in Royal Oak in a new home built in 1955. After her husband’s untimely death due to a stroke, she was left with two young boys and a baby girl.

“I liked (Royal Oak) and I liked the schools,” she said. “I stayed in the house and the boys went to school. I babysat, I did church work, I did whatever to make a living.”

A contributing factor to Demark’s health may have been that she has always walked everywhere. She never had a driver’s license, so she would walk her children to school; the park; church; the department store; the farmers market; Oak View Cemetery, where her husband is buried; and any other destination the family needed to go.

She has relied on Meals on Wheels and helpful neighbors to maintain her independence, and, since her birthday, she said she has enjoyed sitting on her porch and waving to passersby.

“I recommend Royal Oak to everybody,” she said.

This was the last birthday she will celebrate in the city of Royal Oak. This month, Demark will move to Alabama to stay in a nursing home, where she will be closer to her daughter. Her two sons have both passed away. She has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

While she said she is nervous to travel and begin a new life in Alabama, she received many letters from residents of the nursing home welcoming her and anticipating her arrival.

Howell, whose backyard abuts Demark’s backyard, first met Demark when she was a young mother in her mid-30s and volunteered to cook meals at the First Congregational Church of Royal Oak. The women’s group hired Demark to clean the church kitchen once a month, and she also babysat while they cooked.

“We have become friends. She’s quite close to her neighbors on Webster Road. She’s probably been there longer than anyone has,” Howell said. “Her mind is sharp as a tack.”

Howell said she sent out notice to the homeowner’s association, of which she is an officer, as well as members of the First Congregational Church of Royal Oak, and she estimated that approximately 80 people showed up.

“It exceeded my expectations. She was so happy. She came out on her porch, stood and waved at us like the Queen of England,” Howell said. “It was a family event. There were children, babies, a dog, old people, young people.”

She said everyone was respectful of social distancing and wore masks, sang “Happy Birthday,” and, when someone began counting to 104, everyone else joined in the chant, including Demark.

“After (we finished the count), there was a loud bang of thunder. It was the day we had that terrible storm,” Howell said. “God was watching over us to hold off on that terrible storm, although I’m sure people got wet walking back to their cars.”

Demark said she placed proclamations from local officials designating July 7 as Helen Demark Day on her hutch beside a photo of Queen Elizabeth II of England that the Canadian government had sent Demark to commemorate her centennial birthday.

“In these miserable times we’re going through now, this was a counter to that,” Howell said. “This was nothing but goodwill and happiness.”

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