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 to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Betty. Happy birthday to you,” sang the family and friends gathered Saturday inside Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer — Cowgill’s church of over seven decades.
A few moments later, Cowgill looked at her cake, made a wish and then blew out the candles.
Applause ensued, and Cowgill smiled once more.
After all, it’s not every day you get to celebrate turning 100, which Cowgill did Thursday.
And what a life it’s been too, she noted, one full of adventure, patriotism and lots of love.
A farm girl from Tipton County, Cowgill’s first big adventure took her to the United States Coast Guard Reserve during World War II as a member of the “Semper Paratus — Always Ready,” better known as SPARS.
At the time, SPARS, along with the United States Navy’s equivalent WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), were used as ways to authorize the commission of women so that the military could release men from sea duty.
But for Cowgill, it simply meant opportunity.
“It was a way for us to help win the war,” she said. “It was a new phase for girls. … I knew my parents would not be happy. They were afraid I’d get hurt. It was no place for a girl, they said, but it turns out it was a wonderful place for girls.”
So at 21 years of age, Cowgill went to work for Uncle Sam, spending the majority of the next two years as a storekeeper in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi.
Looking back on those days now, Cowgill said she really misses the women she had a chance to meet and work alongside, and she wouldn’t trade those years in active service for anything.
Neither would United States Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Capt. Amy Beach.
Beach and several other Coast Guard members surprised Cowgill during Saturday’s ceremony, coming up from Louisville to take part.
And for Beach, Cowgill’s service all those years ago was actually pretty personal.
“It’s absolutely critical to highlight the stories of people who paved the way, particularly as a woman,” Beach said. “To be able to pay tribute and thank those who came before us that made it all possible is important to me. There’s an amusing video that you can find on YouTube that shows SPARS as they’re serving the Coast Guard back then, and it says, ‘One day too, you can be a secretary to an admiral.’
“Of course we’re all laughing now because women are admirals in the Coast Guard, but it took people (like Cowgill and others in SPARS) to get us to where we are today,” Beach added. “Because of women like her back in WWII, women like me can serve in active duty and be full-time today.”
USCG Petty Officer Melissa Devore nodded her head in agreement to Beach’s comments.
“I think she (Cowgill) set a precedent,” Devore said, “to be able to do jobs that people thought women couldn’t do or shouldn’t be allowed to do in a man’s world. She worked for that. Now here we are years later, and we’re rocking the house with all that we do. So I’m truly honored to be here and humbled to meet her.”
Along with the Coast Guard in attendance, Coast Guard Admiral Karl L. Schultz also wrote Cowgill a letter, which was displayed Saturday near the church’s entrance.
In it, Schultz talked about Cowgill’s "selfless service" to her country, along with her dedication and sacrifice.
“Please know that today’s Coast Guard stands strong because of the long blue line of public servants like you,” his letter read in part. “Your fellow SPARS and you continue to serve as an inspiration to those who follow in your footsteps.”
Cowgill was honorably discharged from the military in 1945.
The war had ended, and it was simply time to come back home, she said.
But often where one adventure ends, another begins.
In 1948, Cowgill met a widowed father with three young daughters, and the pair eventually fell in love.
“What I remember about that time is that we often got to go on dates with them,” Clar Adele Coy, Cowgill’s daughter, told the crowd during the ceremony. “When the date was over, our dad would always walk her to the front door, leaving us three kids in the car. But we all had our noses up against that car window checking to see if our dad was going to kiss her goodnight.”
The couple married in December 1948 and welcomed another daughter together a few years later, thus making the family of six complete.
“My mom is such a dear person,” Coy said, when asked by the Tribune what her mother has meant to her all these years. “She came and raised us three girls as her own, and we owe a lot to her for taking over our family. … And I know this day (Cowgill’s 100th birthday celebration) just brings her to tears.”
Throughout Saturday’s birthday party, sentiments along those lines were shared numerous times too by those who know and love Cowgill.
And even though she’s lived a lifetime of adventures already, Cowgill herself said she feels she still has many left to go.
“This has all been very special,” she said, referring to her lifetime. “… It just seems like it flew by for me.”
Cowgill was then asked about her key secrets to longevity, to which she paused slightly after saying each item.
“Good food. Exercise. Sleep, though I can’t really say that because I miss a lot of it, but it is important,” she said. “And to me, God is part of it too. He gives you life. He gives us all life. And I think I’ve just been very fortunate.”