Armstrong: At 100, Bessie will celebrate with sis - who's 102

Bessie Williams will celebrate her 100th birthday on Sunday. She is holding a photo of her sister Othie Rowser, who reached her centennial in 2014.

GUESS WHO'S GOING to Bessie Williams' 100th birthday party on Sunday.

Her older sister.

Yes, you read that correctly. Williams' older sister.

When Williams presides over her 100th birthday party on Sunday in a white St. John knit three-piece outfit from Saks Fifth Avenue, her 102-year-old sister will be there to welcome her into the club. Imagine that.

Sibling centenarians. That doesn't happen all that often. After all, only one in 5,000 Americans even makes it to 100 years old. Of those who do, only a tiny fraction have siblings still alive, much less one who is senior.

"It's really quite rare," Thomas T. Perls, director of Boston University's New England Centenarian Study, told me Tuesday. "When we find centenarians, maybe one out of 20 has a living brother or sister."

Both Williams and her big sis are in reasonably good health, although both have memory issues. Genes are on their side: Their mother lived to 99.

Williams lives at the Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley home in Germantown, where Sunday's birthday celebration will start at 2:30 p.m. Her sister, Othie L. Rowser, lives in Lawnside.

Williams, a retired government worker, attributes her longevity to strong faith. Her husband, son, granddaughter, and most of her friends are long gone, but Williams doesn't dwell on that.

When I caught up with her Tuesday, she appeared psyched about her upcoming party. She was dressed in blue jeans and a matching denim jacket.

"It's wonderful to have lived to be 100," she told me in her slow cadence, as a bright smile crossed her face.

Born in 1916, Williams spent her early childhood in Madison, Ky. At 13, she moved with her mother to Philadelphia to join her father, who had come to the city ahead of his family to find work.

Williams graduated from Simon Gratz High School in 1933 and worked as a domestic, one of the few jobs available to black women during those Depression-era days.

She went on to study at Berean Institute, and then at Temple University at night, graduating with a business degree in 1970. Along the way, she married Paul Lawrence Williams (she no longer remembers when) and had a son.

She worked as a contract officer at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot, now known as the Defense Logistics Agency.

She's been a member of Holsey Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church for 87 years, although she doesn't get over there much any more. Williams said she mostly spends her days watching CNN and enjoys seeing her sister, who retired from the Lord & Taylor department store in 1976.

Williams' niece Wilma R. Byrd drives Rowser from New Jersey to Stapeley every Sunday, when they catch up over pork fried rice, lo mein, and iced tea. (Both sisters are both "big eaters," according to Byrd.)

For Williams, it has been "a good life. A happy life. It had ups and downs, but mostly happy."

When I asked how she made it to 100, she said: "I prayed that I would."

One of the keys to longevity, experts say, is having strong family ties and something to look forward to. Williams has been counting down the days to 100. She would tell her niece, "Three more months." Then it was, "Two more months."

Now, finally, her big weekend is at hand. (Her birthday is Saturday.)

I hope they really turn up, as the kids say.

At 100, she's earned it.

On Twitter: @JeniceAmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen