EAST HARWICH — Isabelle Monteleone will become the Cape’s latest centenarian on Saturday, Dec. 15. Earlier this fall, 60 of her family, friends, caregivers, and other acquaintances came to her daughter’s East Harwich home to preemptively celebrate, with displays of memorabilia from the phases of her life and a special a video-recorded birthday greeting from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, arranged for by her good friend Tom Raftery.
Monteleone has frequently been asked about the secret of living to 100, and her answer is unexpected. She laughs and borrows the reply usually offered by a 105-year-old friend of hers – but more on that later.
Isabelle Cameron Hickingbotham was born in Pittsfield, Mass. on Dec. 15, 1918, a little over a month following the end of World War I. The oldest of three children, she lived on a farm in Peru, Mass., before moving to Hinsdale where her father was the caretaker for a cemetery. After graduating from Pittsfield High School in 1935 she went to work at the General Electric Plant as the first woman steel buyer. She soon met and married Ben Messenger, an American who like many others had moved to Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to fight the war against Hitler. The couple lived in Toronto until Pearl Harbor, after which they returned to the United States where Ben trained pilots in Alabama and Mississippi before being killed on a training flight in 1942.
In 1943, at the behest of friends, she decided to support the war effort by joining the Red Cross. After her training she was transferred to London, arriving in the midst of one of Germany’s blitz raids. She was assigned to the 502nd Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, and charged with establishing base clubs that served to entertain servicemen when off duty. In an unusual move, she was embedded with that unit, traveling along with its military personnel through France to Germany and Austria and back to France where she found herself on V-E Day. After a period in the British Isles she was reassigned to Japan, but before she could go there, Japan surrendered and she returned home to Massachusetts.
She then married Vincent “Vinnie” Monteleone, who was in advertising, and they located in the South End of Boston where her daughter Deborah was born in 1947. After moving back to her mother’s home in Hinsdale where their son William was born in 1949, the couple, their two children, and Monteleone’s mother next settled down in Pittsfield where their daughter Andrea was born in 1955. Vinnie was then working as the advertising manager for the Berkshire Eagle while Isabelle raised their children and pets, did a labor survey for the Census Bureau, ran the paper’s Santa Toy Fund, and worked with the Red Cross blood drive. She also took up golf, swimming, cross-country skiing, and especially gardening. Peonies she planted 80 years ago in Pittsfield still blossom in their new home on the Cape.
After Vinnie died in 1995, Monteleone continued many of her activities, including helping create and maintain a Hospice Garden in Pittsfield, before selling her house in 2004 and moving to Deborah’s home. While her physical activities are more limited now, she is still busy and involved with those who care for or visit with her, including a neighbor who arrives faithfully every morning with the crossword puzzle.
“Many of the soldiers from World War II came home unwilling to talk about their war experiences,” she said. “They wanted to get on with their education, marry and have children, go back to work and resume their lives.” However, to a degree she will talk of some of the horrors they encountered and describe the efforts she and other Red Cross workers made to respond to their needs. Because she traveled with her unit many of her experiences were unique. Stationed in England on the eve of D-Day, she drove a borrowed truck to bring supplies to those fighting in the Battle of Bastogne in Belgium. Later back in Northern England and Scotland, she came to the aid of soldiers gravely injured in the D-Day invasion, helping them write letters home, and bringing to the hospital “whatever the soldiers needed, including mail, personal effects, and, most important to the men, their paratrooper boots.” The latter request was more common than one might imagine.
“By that point in the war equipment was wearing out and replacements were scarce. The thing the soldiers most often asked for were boots.” Monteleone still has a log book in which many of the soldiers she helped wrote their names and addresses.
In recognition of her service, Monteleone received the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition given to a civilian. True to form, when she was asked to attend a ceremony at which the honor would be bestowed, she replied simply, “Mail it to me.” After all, she said, “I was married and had children to raise. I wanted to get on with my life as well.”
So what is the secret of living to 100? Her favorite response, offered with a chuckle, is simple.
“Don’t you think that if I knew, I would tell you?” Or maybe it has something to do with the life Monteleone lived, overcoming loss and adversity, responding to the needs of others, building a network of family and friends, and experiencing every day to the fullest.