Selma Frank at 101

Everything in moderation, except family and friends.


Her eyesight is failing, but Selma Frank’s hearing is sharp and her sense of humor is still going strong, all pretty amazing considering she’s 101. She lives in Tisbury in a cozy house she and her sister Rea designed in the late 1970s when they moved to the Island from Pennsylvania. There are support staff with Selma now, and Island friends who visit regularly. She has a niece and nephew, the children of her late brother Gilbert and his wife Doris, and several great-nieces and great-nephews.

“My family is a very interesting family. There’s my nephew and niece. My niece is a Harvard professor of Buddhism, and my nephew is a doctor in Montreal,” she told me one chilly afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I came to visit Selma at her home, invited there by her friend and my neighbor, Wendy Andrews. We talked about Selma’s career, her family and friends, and her life on the Vineyard.

Selma told me she grew up in Chester, Pa., about 20 miles outside Philadelphia, in a little apartment above her father’s general goods store. Her parents, Jacob and Rose Frank, had immigrated from Eastern Europe before she was born. Selma was particularly close to her siblings, her older sister Rea and twin brother Gilbert. “When my father told my grandfather that my mother had twins, my grandfather said, ‘This is not the time for joking,’” Selma told me with a chuckle.

The children helped in their father’s store and grew up during the Great Depression, when opportunities were limited and the challenges were many. Despite the economics, both Selma and Rea went to West Chester State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, where Selma graduated in 1940. Her brother had wanted to study art, she told me, but he hadn’t gotten a scholarship.

There weren’t many career choices for young Jewish women in those days, so teaching was her first job, Selma explained.

“I was the first to graduate in my family, and nobody had money to pay tuition,” she said. “We didn’t have money. The treasurer of the school would come to class because nobody would go to see him.

“My first teaching job was in a junior high school. They gave me the job of a teacher who had a mental collapse. In those days the newest and least experienced teachers got the worst classes.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. had declared war on Germany, and the government was looking for qualified women to work at jobs typically filled by men. Selma soon landed a new position with the Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C. She said she was happy to leave the teaching job, so she made the move.

“I had two friends who were already living there, so I moved in with them, and there were no rooms to be had. I think I slept in the dining room,” Selma said.

Rea joined her in Washington after the war ended, leaving her own teaching job behind. Selma told me that there weren’t many available men around during the war, limiting options for marriage. There weren’t many women or many Jews in her department at work, but there was one man who had volunteered to move to D.C. from New Jersey. She thought he could use the company, so she invited him to dinner at the apartment she shared with her sister.

“We finally had one man who volunteered to work in the government who was professor at Princeton, strange business but he was there. He didn’t know anybody, so I innocently invited him to dinner one night for a nice thing to do,” Selma remembered. “He came and was horrified that there was someone else there. My sister had no idea he wanted anything, so he wasn’t very nice. He was a married man. When I went back to work he never talked to me again.”

After the civil service commission job, Selma applied at the Bureau of Standards and was hired to test lubricants for aeronautics.

“It was fun,” she said. “I had to decide on what to test to set the standard. I grew up during the Depression, so it wasn’t ever a question of liking your work, it was the question of getting by.”

The two sisters moved back to Pennsylvania when their father died in the late 1940s. They helped their mother run the store until they sold it a few years later. Selma and Rea would continue to build their careers, and Gilbert would marry and raise a family.

Selma worked as a bookkeeper, estimator, and production professional for a couple of printing companies in Philadelphia over the years, and Rea worked at the top tier of nonprofit organizations. The sisters lived together most of their adult lives, and traveled to Europe in the 1960s. Selma shared her memories of a 10-week trip she and Rea made together.

“We rented a car in London and we went from there to Scotland,” she said. “We met a couple, Pat and Les Roberts, and we became friends, lifelong friends. They lived in Bath, England.”

As the years went by, Selma said she and her sister didn’t feel safe walking at night in the area where they lived. Their cousin Hattie Jacobs, who was married to an African American, had made the move to Martha’s Vineyard in 1968, and found it to be an accepting place where they felt welcomed as a mixed-race couple. Selma also told me she lived through the days when “people wouldn’t sell a house to a Jew.”

After visiting their cousins, Selma and Rea decided to move to the Island as well. “We fell in love with the Island,” she said. Their brother Gil and his wife made the move a few years later.

Both Rea and Selma volunteered with the Dukes County Cooperative Extension after they arrived; Selma tested the pH levels in soil samples. That’s where she met her friend Alice Robinson.

“I was like her mother,” Selma said; “still am.”

Alice teaches family and consumer science at the Tisbury School, working with that same grade level Selma did all those years ago. Alice said she and Selma enjoy talking about their families and their teaching experiences. She said her long friendship with Selma is important to her.

“She’s a character. She has a great sense of humor, and because of her life experiences, she has a very down-to-earth way of perceiving the world,” Alice said. “She grew up a woman during World War II, and all the men were gone. She was Jewish and she worked as a woman in a man’s field. She’d always liked science and math, so she used her skills until the war was over and men started coming back and taking over jobs.”

Alice told me that the openness of the Island community was also good for Selma and her sister. “It’s safe both physically and emotionally,” Alice said. “It’s a very accepting community on the Island, and it wasn’t weird that there were two sisters living together, it wasn’t weird that their cousin had a mixed-race marriage. So many things she had to deal with in the past weren’t a problem here. People didn’t look down on her because she was a strong woman.”

Rea died in 2005 when she was 92, some months after their brother Gilbert passed away. She had a stroke, and Selma took care of her as long as she could before Rea moved to the Henrietta Brewer House. Since then, her friends have made sure to visit Selma more often.

I went back to see her again because I felt like I needed more information for my story. I asked Selma if there was a special dish her mother made that she had loved when she was a girl. She told me she liked her mother’s kugel pudding but that she wasn’t much of a cook herself, except for baking crackers. I hadn’t heard of anyone making their own crackers before, but Selma assured me they were good. She also told me something she’d forgotten. She was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she thought maybe because she was involved in union activities. I asked her if she was scared when it happened.

“I think I was more defiant than scared,” she said. “I wasn’t involved, but they kept asking me over and over. It was all very complicated …”

Sometimes when I talk to people about their story, I get so fascinated that I forget the obvious, and I had neglected to ask Selma to what she attributed her longevity. I called her late last week, and she said, “A drink of scotch every night.” Then she added, “Don’t drink too much, don’t eat too much, go on a low-sugar, low-salt diet. Have good family around you, and friends. Keep your temper.”

Sounds like good advice.