“Good afternoon,” he said, walking into his party at a ballroom in Hillcrest Heights, Md., to Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “Doctor Bishop coming through.”
The World War II veteran — nicknamed “Doc,” since his family says he can fix just about anything — celebrated his centennial Friday, surrounded by dozens of family members and friends. Bishop has so many descendants — 11 children, dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren — that his family has stopped keeping count.
If Bishop has taken any lessons with him over the past century, the most important ones are to put faith first and try to be good.
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Bishop said he was born and raised in the small town of Bishopville, S.C. He never met his father — he died before Bishop was born — and his mother died when he was barely a teenager. He was mostly raised by his grandfather, who Bishop said was a preacher and instilled in him the importance of church and religion. He attended church every Sunday.
He worked as a sharecropper for most of his young life, dropping out of school before finishing third grade. Later, his love for gardening translated into a long career in landscaping. Among his family, he’s known for being able to make anything grow.
It’s been a good life, Bishop said. But Geneva Bishop, his eldest daughter, said he rarely shared his struggles with his family. Sharecropping was hard work without much reward, she said, but he always managed to support his family.
“My daddy had to learn a lot of stuff on his own,” she said. “But he always had a job, he always worked. I think that’s amazing for someone who had as little education as he did.”
He met his future wife, Rosa Mae Bishop, at church. Their marriage wasn’t always easy — the two faced Rosa Mae’s disapproving parents, moved from South Carolina to Washington, D.C., and helped raise grandchildren together, Geneva said. But they remained by each other’s sides until Rosa Mae died in 1983.
Bishop volunteered to serve in World War II in 1942, he said. It worried him to leave his family, but he felt compelled to go. He served overseas in Okinawa and worked mainly in the kitchen but also as a quartermaster and prison guard.
The family moved to D.C. in 1953, said Geneva, 74. They moved houses frequently as their family grew. Bishop now lives in Temple Hills, Md., with one of his daughters, Comiller Brunson.
“We was happy,” Geneva said. “There were so many of us, so we stuck together. … It was wonderful.”
Bishop remained a presence in his children’s lives, in both joyous and difficult times. Brunson remembers vividly that when her first son, Arthur, was born with spinal meningitis, Bishop stayed by her side at the hospital and prayed over her son, reassuring her he was going to be okay.
Arthur now has an especially close bond with his grandfather. Bishop taught Arthur how to drive, the importance of hard work and the value of his faith. Bishop used to refuse to let Arthur help out with landscaping, instead telling him he was “for the books.”
Ask any of his grandchildren, and they will say the greatest lessons they learned from Bishop were his perseverance and his steady faith.
“He taught you anything is possible,” said Brandon Cornelius Bishop, another grandchild.
And with Bishop happily celebrating a century of living, surrounded by six of his surviving children and dozens of adoring family members, perhaps anything is.
“I made it,” said the former sharecropper and soldier. “I made that 100.”