From a distance, Chevy Chase wishes ‘Happy 100th’ to one of its own
Rowse’s milestone birthday gives community ‘a reason to celebrate’
Ted Rowse (center) and John Martin mimic a tennis rally during a May 2 celebration of Rowse's 100th birthday.
Photos by Kirk Sullivan
A few weeks before his 100th birthday, Ted Rowse wrote to his daughter to say he was struggling with the social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. He lamented time lost with friends, relatives and neighbors “just when we need it most.”
Rowse’s journalism career began when he was 10 years old and published his own Naborhood News in Lexington, Mass. He earned headlines when he stopped publishing because he had “too much homework.”
His Army service in North Africa and Italy during World War II further delayed his career. After the war, Rowse returned to journalism at The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report. He served in the Johnson White House on programs to help consumers. The National Press Club’s annual award for press criticism bears his name.
Mayor Barney Rush proclaimed April 30, 2020, as Arthur E. “Ted” Rowse Day in the Town of Chevy Chase. The proclamation arrived at Rowse’s door in an envelope following a contact-free delivery.
Rowse is well-known and loved and yet, a week before his birthday, there were no plans to celebrate. That was until Bill Simon and Cyndy Esty on nearby Elm Street organized a motorcade to pass by Rowse’s house, choosing May 2, the Saturday following his birthday, to avoid harsh weather.
Simon sent a townwide email inviting residents to decorate their vehicles and join the festivities. “Please maintain a safe distance from others at all times,” the email read.
In an email update the night before the motorcade, Simon excitedly pronounced that they were expecting a “terrific turnout” and, in all caps, thanked everyone for “BEING SUCH A WONDERFUL COMMUNITY!!!”
A racket in hand
Rowse and his wife, Ruth Fort, 96, appear in the door and their live-in care giver helps them to chairs in front of the house to observe the parade of well-wishers. Rowse clutches an old wooden tennis racket in one hand and adjusts his mask with the other. From the driveway, his daughter Mary Rowse, 66, calls for him to move it over his nose.
“That’s good enough, Mary,” he replied flatly.
“She’s always wanting to make sure I follow whatever rules there are,” Ted said the following day. “I like to tease her by not doing so sometimes.”
There’s a softness about him when he speaks of his daughter. He knows she’s concerned and he seems comforted by her unrelenting protection. He knows the risks for him and his wife, both of whom have underlying health conditions.
“It’s very unnerving to know there’s a menace that might be underneath your fingertips,” he said. “You don’t know where it is.”
During the war, Rowse faced hidden threats of a different kind. “We went from Norfolk to Casablanca with 500 guys in one hold with bunks stacked five high for 20 days,” he said. “There were only two exits and when we had a submarine scare, we all had to rush up and stand around for hours. Luckily, we didn’t get hit.”
Once he arrived in North Africa, his contribution to the war effort “was mostly in office work, not combat,” but he “learned what it was like to be bombed almost nightly by the Germans in Naples,” he said in an interview posted by the Chevy Chase Historical Society.
His 19-year-old brother, Robert, was also serving in Europe at the time. Robert was with the 83rd Infantry Division, pushing toward the Elbe River, when he was killed. It was just three weeks before the end of hostilities in Europe.
Ted survived the harrowing crossing of the Atlantic Ocean as German submarines wreaked havoc on Allied convoys. He lived through the nightly bombings in Italy. He lost his brother. And he insists the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most difficult experience of them all.
“It’s absolutely incomparable,” he said. “I’ve seen nothing like it.”
Well wishes from motorcade
Seventy-five years after the loss of his brother and the end of the war, neighbors gather outside the house Rowse has called home for more than 40 years.
They wear masks, keep their distance, and say to each other, “It’s so good to finally see you” and “It’s been so long” and “How are you doing?” They’re smiling and ready for Ted’s socially distanced party. They’re ready for any party at any distance.
Journalist Emily Yoffe, 65, lives across the street. She said people in the town miss each other after several weeks of avoiding large crowds and close contact with others. “Are we going go through the rest of our lives in masks and fleeing other people?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s just not how people work.”
“They want a reason to celebrate,” she said. “They want to be with each other. They like to party.”
As they wait for the motorcade, people move in pairs or small groups to the sidewalk in front of Rowse and Fort. They place cards and flowers in a basket, sing “Happy Birthday,” and compliment Rowse’s appearance.
“Jerry, Jerry, put some money in the basket,” Rowse called out, earning a chorus of laughs. “Just kidding, just kidding.”
A chorus of car horns announces the arrival of the motorcade and Rowse stands to greet them. He moves to the center of the lawn, wielding his tennis racket to return imaginary volleys to passengers in passing cars. They wave their rackets and shout birthday greetings over the music blaring from car stereos.
After Rowse retired, he played competitive tennis into his 90s. In 2001, he won the USTA Mid-Atlantic Singles Championship for his age group. “I developed a lot of friendships through tennis,” he said, “and that’s a big part of my life.”
A car halts the motorcade in front of the house. A spry 81-year-old John Martin hops out with his racket and sprints to the sidewalk in front of Rowse. The old friends mimic a rally from their younger years when they competed on USTA courts. As their masks fall slightly, you can see smiles stretch across their faces and, in turn, across the spectators’ faces.
Mary called again from the driveway, “Daddy, pull up your mask!” Ted obliges and goes back to practicing his forehand, which could easily pass for that of someone 30 years younger.
“These friends of his really love him,” Mary Rowse explained. “They wanted to be near him and wanted to do what they used to do and that’s understandable.”
There is comfort in this moment, an air of relief about the many who have gathered to honor Ted Rowse. People move closer together as they talk and laugh. Some are old friends, but some are locals who heard about the celebration through Simon’s townwide invitation.
“It went exactly as we hoped and that’s a testament to our community,” Simon said, noting the event was planned hastily a few days earlier. “It was essentially a substitute for the party that couldn’t be.”
According to Simon, Yoffe, and Mary Rowse, the party that couldn’t be would’ve had friends and family gathering together to celebrate and laugh with their friend, father, grandfather, and uncle. A pandemic stole that moment, but the substitute might have been even better.
“I think that his celebration was more intense than it might have been otherwise” Mary Rowse said. “Whether it was making a sign and holding it on the street, or decorating a car to drive past three times, there was such an outpouring of love.”
“I was really overwhelmed with the attention,” Ted Rowse confessed. “I’m not used to that at all. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before. Friends just knocked themselves silly to arrange the whole thing.”
Mary Rowse admits some of the interactions were too close for comfort, but she knows her father was moved by the event. “Some people knew him, others may not have known him,” she said. “But they made an effort because they knew it would mean something to him.”
Just when he needed it most, they were there for him.
And Ted Rowse was there for them, too. Just when they needed it most.