Rose Shelengian passed away on Sunday morning, December 27, 2020 two days before her 96th birthday. She was born Rose Vartouhi Basmajian in Bridgewater, Massachusetts to Haroutune and Armenouhi (Der Avedisian). Her parents had arrived the year prior from Constantinople with her sister Madeline. Her mother was a survivor of the Genocide and her father, Rose’s hero, had returned to Turkey from America in 1915 to defend his homeland as a freedom fighter under General Antranik.
Rose and her sister grew up in Bridgewater’s small community of Armenians, where they attended Saturday Armenian school and had adventures with the town’s other Armenian children. They experienced discrimination, as their classmates and teachers looked down on them as “foreigners,” but persevered through it. Bridgewater’s factories, where her father worked, closed during the Great Depression, so in 1935 the family moved to Philadelphia where they had relatives. It was quite an adjustment for Rose to adapt to city life after growing up in a rural town, but with time she joined the local Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), an organization she had first been inducted into in 1934 by its founder Karekin Njdeh. She served as treasurer and delegate for the Philadelphia chapter, got to know fellow young Armenians and performed in plays at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church. Rose’s dream was to go to college and become a teacher; however her mother’s premature death in 1938 when Rose was only 13-years-old changed that plan, as she and Madeline stepped up to run the household while their father worked in his tailor shop.
Rose graduated from West Philadelphia High School in 1942. The following year with the men away at war, she took a job at a defense plant in Westinghouse’s turbine division. Her main job was working on a surface grinder to cut stock down to the required dimensions. The work was top secret, even for the women in the plant, now famously known by the moniker “Rosie the Riveter.” Even though she had no prior experience, Rose quickly learned how to use dangerous technical tools, how to read blueprints, and even wore pants for the first time, as prior to that they had been strictly worn by men. In addition, she was the only woman in the plant asked to work a huge machine called a lathe, also usually reserved for men. She described her time in the plant by saying “it was a lot of heavy work, lots of noise and dust, so we were exposed to a great deal, but I felt that it was the least we could do – especially considering what the boys were going through on the battlefield.”
After the war, the boys returned from service and she met Martin Vartan Shelengian at an AYF event. After a period of courtship, they married on November 1, 1947 at St. Gregory’s and had three children: Armine, Richard, and Karen. They moved to Broomall in 1958 where they were joined by many other Armenians over the years. Perhaps encouraged by her previous experiences in the workforce, after Marty temporarily lost his job with General Electric in 1960, Rose made the uncommon step—for the time—of getting a job and becoming a working mother. She continued to work for the next 35 years, becoming executive secretary of the Ultra Sonic Seal Company while balancing all her duties at home. She retired at age 70 only because she figured it was time to, even though she felt she could have continued for many more years. This is not surprising from a woman who couldn’t be stopped from shoveling her driveway into her mid-80s.
A member of the St. Gregory’s Ladies Guild, she was a spectacular cook of Armenian specialties, always making sure her family was fed and had whatever they needed. Her Armenian heritage was very important to her, as well as family—the centerpiece of her life. She delighted in having her grandchildren visit every Saturday. She enjoyed gardening and reading. She was a constant support to her husband Marty; they were married for 64 years until his death in 2011. Fiercely independent, Rose continued to live on her own until she turned 95. She had a special relationship with her grandchildren, and the addition of great-grandchildren brought her new excitement and joy.
A beautiful closing act for her was the re-appreciation of her service as a “Rosie.” While she hadn’t felt she had done anything extraordinary, the importance of what these women did has come to be recognized in recent years. She became involved in the Rosie the Riveter Movement, spreading awareness about its spirit of unity and working together. A special memory for her was being honored as a “Rosie” by the mayor of Philadelphia at the Liberty Bell in 2017. She also was featured in a KYW podcast telling the story of her service which aired on Memorial Day 2019.
Rose’s life was one of overcoming obstacles and immeasurable perseverance. Community members have been sharing their remembrances of her intelligence, beauty, and particularly her smile. She was known as the “matriarch” of not just her immediate family, but her extended family of cousins as well. Her indomitable spirit was an inspiration and example to us all. She is survived by her three children: Armine (the late Bill) Arthin, Richard (Constance) and Karen (Greg) Sookiasian; five grandchildren: Paul, Gregory, Alyssa (Mark), Melanie and Julie; and three great-grandchildren: Ella Rose, Theodore and Tateos. She is also survived by her nieces Elaine (Jim) Gulezian and Zevart Ejdaharian.
A graveside service was held at Arlington Cemetery on Thursday, December 31, 2020. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her memory to St. Gregory’s Church (8701 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19128) or the Armenian Sisters Academy (440 Upper Gulph Road, Radnor, PA 19087).