On Saturday, Berkeley resident Bernadette “Belle” Owens celebrated her 106th birthday.
It was in the small, quaint town of Carthage, Texas, on April 26, 1908, that Owens began her extraordinary life. Despite likely being the oldest living person in Alameda County, Owens is as feisty and talkative as she always was, with a sharp memory to aid her in conversation.
“She always says, the nicer you are, the more people like you, and this is coming from a woman who lived in a time when racism was very real in this country,” said Anthony Sanchez, chief of staff for Councilmember Jesse Arreguin’s office and a friend of Owens’. The city honored Owens with a proclamation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting in celebration of her life.
Despite being one of the first African American women to work for Neiman Marcus, Owens was never uncomfortable working alongside people of different races at a time when race relations were volatile.
“I was never taught to think much about it — it never bothered me about whether you were white or I was black,” she said. “I never came up with those ideas in my head. I mean every word when I say I’m a good person, and it don’t cost nothing to do that.”
Not much slows Owens down. She only retired at 75 years old because her doctor said traveling too much — wearing heavy coats one day and traveling to hot beaches the next — was bad for her throat.
Today, she resides in Berkeley, having spent the last 15 years of her life in her own apartment. Her brightly lit home is decorated with portraits of her children, and near her dining room table is a framed picture of herself clad in an elegant, floor-length dress, embodying exactly the flair with which she always carried her life and still does.
As a woman who makes her own decisions, writes out her own checks and takes care of her own life, Owens gives “old” a different meaning.
“When you look at older people, it makes you not want to get older. But when you look at her, you think, ‘If I can get old and live like Belle, I would,’ ” said Karen White, Owens’ granddaughter. “She’s a ball of fire — there’s nothing like her.”
Over the decades, her eyes have witnessed history unfold, and Belle can tell a century’s worth of incredible stories, such as the times when she worked as a personal assistant to comedian Jack Benny and traveled the world as a party hostess.
After growing up in the South, Owens moved to Harlem with her first husband, Sam Jyles, in 1938 at the age of 19. In her neighborhood lived big names such as jazz musicians Teddy Wilson and Louis Armstrong.
After she was inspired by Madame C.J. Walker to pursue a career in show business, Owens became a fashion consultant to young performers of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Wilson, Kay Starr and Dorothy Shay.
Owens was once handed $300,000 worth of jewelry from Tiffany & Co. that was loaned to Shay for a show. She laughed, remembering how nervous she was when the jewelry men breathed down her neck as she draped the expensive necklace around Shay’s neck. The two men hovered over Owens throughout the entire show while Shay was performing.
After Owens shared her stories and the framed pictures around her home, she looked up and smiled.
“If you wake up in the morning, whatever your mind tells you to do, do it,” Owens said. “It works. I am telling you from self-experience. So, if it works for me, it will work for you.”