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Secrets of a Happy Life at 101 from a Women's Army Corps Veteran

Six lessons gleaned from a century of selflessness and service


spinner image world war ii veteran ethel margolin poses for a photo next to a flag
World War II veteran Ethel Margolin poses for a portrait in the Parkhill School auditorium during the weekly Wings Over Wendy’s veterans meeting.
Philip Cheung

Ethel Margolin, a veteran of WWII and the Women’s Army Corp, is an amazing woman. At 101, she has an incredible memory, a wry sense of humor and a quick mind.

She attends weekly meetings of the veterans’ group Wings Over Wendy’s, monthly meetings of the San Fernando Valley Jewish War Veterans and frequently has lunch with friends.

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Born in 1922 in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, to Russian immigrant parents she attributes her longevity and happiness to six golden rules:

1. “To thine own self be true”

This advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has been a guiding principle for Ethel, who always knew what she wanted to do and never let others get in the way of her beliefs or desires. “It touched me,” she told AARP Veteran Report. “And always stayed with me.”

After Pearl Harbor, Ethel worked in a factory as one of the original “Rosie the Riveters.” At age 21, she decided to enlist. The reason, she said, was simple: “We were at war and I wanted to do my part.”

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2. Never quit

Ethel says she was turned down by several branches of the military because she was Jewish. But she was proud of her heritage and persisted. Eventually, she explained, the WAC “grabbed me” and she became a Private First Class.

After basic training, she remembers, she was offered a field commission which she ultimately rejected because, as true to her nature, she wanted to work her way up. She was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Her love of acting, led her to direct plays and musicals to entertain the troops.

She was then transferred to Air Transport Command of the 8th Air Force in Cincinnati, where she was one of five women working on special classified projects. She stayed there until the end of the war.

3. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today

After the war, Ethel married Abe, a former soldier. They moved from New York to Southern California where he worked as a men’s clothing salesman and they raised their two sons, Robert and William.

At that time most women were stay-at-home moms, raising a family and doing household chores. But while looking after her children Ethel helped develop a seven-city security guard business, spearheaded an initiative to change the name of an urban development, and attended California State University and Pierce College in Los Angeles.

4. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Ethel has always helped others and found that this meant they helped her along the way too.

Now, she’s achieving a little recognition. At age 99, she received a letter from former President Jimmy Carter. In 2022, she took part in the Ringing a Bell for Rosies project.

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This year, she was honored in the Memorial Day Parade in her hometown of Canoga Park, California, where she has lived since the 1960s.

A life-long baseball fan who once watched Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium, she was then chosen to throw the first pitch at Dodger Stadium on the Fourth of July, to the cheers of 20,000 spectators.

She hopes that “I’ll still be around” for more adventures. She’s happy, however, to share the limelight, pointing out: “There’s another lady here who is 102 and she can stand up. It’s astonishing.”

spinner image world war ii veteran ethel margolin salutes in the foreground during a wings over wendy's veterans meeting in california
World War II veteran Ethel Margolin sings the national anthem during the weekly Wings Over Wendy’s veterans meeting at the Parkhill School auditorium.
Philip Cheung

5. Eat healthily

Ethel was married for 52 years and has been a widow for 20. She currently lives with her son, Robert, 68, a karate instructor. William, 67, a lawyer, lives nearby, as do her three grandchildren, all in their thirties.

She eats organic vegan meals and follows a strict regimen of vitamins and juices.

6. Keep your sense of humor

This is perhaps Ethel’s most important rule. She peppers her conversations with jokes and quips. When asked about technology, she pulled out her cell phone and rattled off the number. She says she owns a computer, but doesn’t like it. “I’m still dealing with the switch on the wall from candles.”

Ethel says she finds something to laugh about every day and is happy to be lauded for her age as long as no one takes advantage of her. “Now that I’m 101, everyone wants a piece of me,” she chuckled. “I’m getting tired.”

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