Florence Bass turns 105 and gets her own holiday
Brooklyn Heights resident Florence Bass turned 105 years old on Monday, and the whole borough celebrated.
By proclamation of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the day was officially commemorated as “Florence Bass’ 105th Birthday Celebration Day in Brooklyn, USA.” She also received a letter from Mayor Bill de Blasio with birthday congratulations.
At a party in her apartment, surrounded by her own artwork, Bass told stories from her remarkable past, blew out the candles on her cake and enjoyed a slice surrounded by best friends.
Bass was born on April 1, 1914, in Brooklyn — in the days of dirt roads and horse-drawn wagons. She lived in Flatbush on Nostrand Avenue and Winthrop, above a candy store owned by her father.
She recalls how the horses that drew fire engines were lined up three across, and that a blacksmith shop was always next to a fire house.
After attending Girls High School, she went to New York University, and then Tulane University in New Orleans to complete her master’s degree in social work.
“Florence is a fascinating person,” Bass’ friend and neighbor Toba Potosky said. Bass has regaled him with stories of her life over their 20-year friendship.
“When FDR proposed the New Deal, the country needed social workers in order to run the new programs. Florence and two other women bought a car and drove to New Orleans and enrolled in Tulane’s social work program,” he recalled.
The first time Bass and her friend tried to find a place to stay in New Orleans, they were turned away. Three unaccompanied women driving by themselves were assumed, at the time, to be prostitutes. The young women had to return to the school and get written proof that they were enrolled in a program before anyone would rent them a room, Potosky said.
Bass joined the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, but only after promising her father that she would remain stateside, since her brother was fighting overseas. She served as a social worker at the Auxiliary Military Hospital Services in New York City, was stationed in West Overfield, Massachusetts, and then did a stint at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
After the war, Bass worked for two years at the Jewish Family and Children’s Resettlement Program, helping to place refugees.
“I remember one; she came for help,” Bass told the Brooklyn Eagle. “She stood by the door and she was bent over. Her nose almost touched the ground. It was terrible to see. I looked at her … and very gently, I said, ‘Come in.’ And I said, ‘Come here and sit where I can talk with you.’ And I said, ‘Are you comfortable?’
“She knew that I was talking about how bent over she was, and I acknowledged her difficulty in standing up straight … And she said to me very nicely, ‘I have to bend over because the Germans used us to carry beams on our backs.’
“And I thought to myself, ‘My God. What people could do to each other!’”
Another time, there were so many war casualties that Bass was asked to accompany a blind soldier who wanted to go fishing. Being from Brooklyn, she said she didn’t know anything about fishing.
“Don’t worry, he’ll teach you anything you need to know,” she was told.
“I followed him as he pointed ahead,” Bass said. “We went down a little dirt road and finally he said, ‘Oh there it is, there is where we will go fishing.’ And there was the lake where the fish were.”
The man directed her to a little cabin where they got two fishing rods and a tin box. He took care of the fishing rods, taught her how to bait the hook and cast out into the water. He also taught her how to take the fish off the hook and put it in the tin.
“He caught some fish, and in a little while he said, ‘That’s it, the time is up,’” she said.
By that time she had totally forgotten the man was blind. “It was something I never forgot,” she said.
The secret to her longevity
Bass painted the dozens of artworks that line the walls of her apartment. During the last year or two, she has been less energetic but still paints bookmarks in collaboration with Veronica Goindoo, her aide. Goindoo owned a restaurant back home in Trinidad and prepares Bass’ favorite meals.
“Everything is homemade. That’s why she is so healthy,” Goindoo said. Bass’ favorite food is mashed potatoes, shrimp and fish.
“And the best thing she likes is the soup I make for her now. I make the chicken soup with all the vegetables and blend it, and she loves it. She drinks two bowls a day plus her food,” Goindoo said. “I love to cook, so I’m always in the kitchen and she gets fresh things all the time. That is the big secret, especially the soup. That gives her strength.”
Joan Millman, former assemblymember and a member of the Major Steering Committee in the New York State Assembly, lived in the same co-op as Bass for almost 30 years.
“Last year, I reached out to Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who was very excited to do something” for Bass’ 104th birthday, Millman said. “Nydia read her bio on the floor of the House of Representatives. This year we have a letter from the mayor and a citation from the borough president commemorating this wonderful occasion, 105 years.”
Bass received a signed letter from President and Mrs. Obama on her 103rd birthday, and she could not be more pleased, Potosky added.
Friends share memories
Agnes Djaha has known Bass for 21 years. “She has some wonderful stories to tell about her very extraordinary life,” Djaha said. “She remembers before trolleys — before the cars.
“She has a story that when she was stationed in Massachusetts, a young boy, 9 or 10 years old, snuck onto a bus with inductees and the police had to take him back,” Djaha said. “But she said to him, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re too young now to join the army. But there’ll be more wars coming.’”
Carmela Cohen used to live in Bass’ Flatbush neighborhood. “But 30 years apart,” she said. “The world did not change that much in those 30 years. We could talk about the same cinema, the same Jewish deli, the same ice cream parlor.”
Felicia Birnel said she lives in the same building. “More than anything, Florence and I were really good friends with real give and take on both of our parts.”
Beverly Schnipper is one of the original co-operators from their building. “A lot of my co-operators mistake me for her,” she laughed. “Sometimes after they greet me, I realize they think I’m Florence.”
Linda VanderWoude said, “I’ll be here 10 years tomorrow, and Florence is a wonderful neighbor and just a joy to be around.”
Laura Gold, a fellow social worker, said she was born in Rome, Italy. “And then I lived in Israel because I personally couldn’t stay after the persecution. I lost family there,” Gold said. “So I went to Israel, and from there I came to study here. And then I met Florence. I’ve known her since 1966, when I received placement in the office where she was working, the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services.”
Over all those years, Bass came to her house for birthdays, weekends and the Jewish holidays, Gold said. “We have been very close for a long time. She knows all my family by name, she knows my friends by name.
“Florence has been really important because as a social worker she knows how to respond to your difficulties, and even if you don’t see them, she sees them,” Gold said. “She’s a terrific person. I miss her a lot because now she’s not in the same shape she was a few years ago. But that’s the way we go. 105 is very good.”
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