The birthday balloons and decorations in her Bustleton apartment may give away the fact that she recently turned 97, but anyone talking to Charlotte Bowman would think they’re speaking with someone much younger.
At nearly a century old, Bowman has the life experience to prove it. In her Red Lion Road apartment she keeps black and white photos depicting her time serving in the Navy during World War II, and even a yellowed letter of honorable discharge from her service, signed by President Harry S. Truman. Among these priceless documents is a high school diploma from Benjamin Franklin High School, which she received when she was 45 years old.
She lived a long and interesting life, and she’s far from over.
Bowman is a lifelong Philadelphian who grew up in South Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion before settling in the Northeast more than two decades ago. Her parents came to the country from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and opened a luncheonette and candy store in South Philadelphia. While Bowman (whom her family nicknamed “Chickie”) was a student at William Penn High School, her mother became sick with esophageal cancer, and she dropped out of school to take care of her.
“You did what you had to do,” Bowman said.
The youngest of 10 siblings, Bowman’s older brothers Oscar, Harry and Izzy each enlisted in the military during WWII, serving across the world in Australia, England and Texas. In 1945, when she was in her early 20s, Bowman decided she wanted to follow in her brothers’ footsteps and enlisted in the Navy, despite her parents’ wishes for their youngest daughter.
Bowman performed office work at the Navy including record keeping as well as cooking and cleaning. Even almost six decades later she can still recall some of the marches they were trained.
“Hup, one, two, three,” she recalled with a nostalgic laugh.
Out of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, only 350,000 (about 2 percent) were women, according to the National WWII Museum. Bowman traveled to New York to serve alongside women from all across the country, many of whom became lifelong friends.
Bowman would take the train back to Philadelphia on the weekends to help take care of her mother. After two years of service, Bowman was honorably discharged so that she could go home and take care of her mother full time.
“I never regretted going in the Navy. It was an honor,” she said.
Once she was back she got a job as a waitress, where she met her husband Barton, with whom she had six kids, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Two of her kids went on to serve in the military as well, and her daughter Jess serves as her caretaker full time thanks to the Hands From the Heart program for veterans.
While working and raising kids of her own, Bowman enrolled in Benjamin Franklin High School when she was 45 to complete her high school education and finally get her diploma. It was something she knew she had to do in her lifetime.
“I remember saying I’ll never have another chance to do this,” she said. She made sure each of her kids graduated high school as well.
When Bowman turns 100 in three years she’ll receive a letter from the president congratulating her long and healthy life, making it the second letter signed by a president she’ll receive.
At her kitchen table with Jess, the two exchanged stories when Jess was growing up, such as when Charlotte worked in a candy factory with her friend Thelma and would bring home candy for her kids.
“Boy I am getting old,” Bowman said.
But she’s still young at heart. ••