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Rose Haddad, 111; her zest for life inspired generations

Mrs. Haddad regaled her grandchildren with the stories of her travels to Jerusalem and her native Syria. Mrs. Haddad regaled her grandchildren with the stories of her travels to Jerusalem and her native Syria.
By Jenna Duncan
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2011

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Escorted by a daughter and two grown grandchildren, Rose Haddad ventured from Natick to Orlando to celebrate her 90th birthday.

She rode roller coasters at Disney World and toured the Kennedy Space Center.

“When we walked through Disney World, she refused to have a wheelchair — it was at the point I needed the wheelchair,’’ said granddaughter RoseMarie Stamboulides of Ashland. “She didn’t want any special treatment because she didn’t consider herself old, and she had the mind-set that as long as she acted and thought young, she was.’’

Mrs. Haddad, a devoted mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who may have been the country’s oldest Arab-American, died April 29 at Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick after a period of declining health. She was 111.

Mrs. Haddad was born Ramza Homsy in Damascus in 1900, and moved to the United States with her family as a child.

The family quickly settled in Natick, and she became a member of the Church of St. John of Damascus, where she was active for the rest of her life.

“What’s interesting is she was older than the church; it was built in 1907,’’ said grandson Richard Nawfel of Waltham. “There was a lot more to her than just the church, but she dedicated a good part of her life to it.’’

She married John Haddad, who knew her family and its four sisters, but was most attracted to Rose, her granddaughter said.

“She would tell us, ‘Of course he was going to pick me,’ ’’ Stamboulides said.

The pair lived in Natick, starting a home on East Central Street on a large property that was full of life: a few animals, two gardens, and seven children.

“There were always people, food, and music,’’ Nawfel said. “From the way I heard it described [it] was always . . . a house full of people. In terms of possessions, most had very little, but they had each other. And that’s the theme that is pretty clear.’’

She was known for her Arabic dishes and pastries. When her children and grandchildren asked to learn her craft, she said she had no written recipes; she would explain the dish by saying “a little bit of this and a little bit of that’’ in Arabic.

“If one thing defined her home besides herself and her own personality, it was food — food and people,’’ Nawfel said.

Though Mrs. Haddad loved her home, she left for extended periods, twice to travel back to the Middle East. She regaled her grandchildren with stories of her travels to her native Syria and destinations such as Jerusalem. She told of large festivals, concerts, and vivid scenery.

In 1965, five years after her husband died, she obtained a driver’s license and bought a car. She began working at Leonard Morse Hospital, prepping instruments for surgeons.

“For her to enter the workforce was a big thing,’’ her grandson said. “She had her own car and went to work like everyone else for the first time. It was part of this theme — independence. Her independence was her strength.’’

As her children grew, they integrated her into their new lives. For family occasions, from graduations to basketball games to going out to dinner, the reservation for the family often included Mrs. Haddad. As a result, Stamboulides and Nawfel were close with their grandmother.

Mrs. Haddad taught her grandson Arabic because he was interested in learning her heritage and language.

“We kind of had our own half-English, half-Arabic conversations, and it seemed to bridge the generations,’’ he said. “I understood her like there was not that difference in generations.’’

When college basketball’s March Madness came, Nawfel would have Mrs. Haddad fill out a bracket; and Stamboulides would invite her to her Mary Kay makeup parties.

“It was things like that that we would engage her in, and she loved that, and I almost think that’s what kept her young,’’ Stamboulides said.

Nawfel said that when people asked him her secret for long life, he explained she had none, aside from her smile and eight glasses of water a day. She simply enjoyed life, he said.

“She had tragedies happen to her, whether it was sickness, hardships, or anything else; she always seemed to have this strong will to survive and maintain her quality of life,’’ he said. “I think it had a lot to do with [seeing] a lot of changes in America over 100 years, and people. She was somebody who could adapt, but at the same time, she maintained her traditional values.’’

In 2000, Senator Edward M. Kennedy presented her with a centenarian award at the John F. Kennedy Library.

In addition to her grandson and granddaughter, Mrs. Haddad leaves a daughter, Jamila Nawfel of Waterville, Maine; three sons, George of Somerdale, N.J., Mitchell of Natick, and Alfred of Arlington; 19 other grandchildren; 34 great-grandchildren; and two great-great grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned tomorrow at 10 a.m. in the Church of St. John of Damascus in Dedham.

Jenna Duncan can be reached at jduncan@globe.com.