Josephine B. Stevens, 100, formerly of Germantown, who moved from Puerto Rico at age 4 and later became an Olympic-class gymnast, professional dancer, and the mother of three, died Friday, Aug. 2, of Alzheimer’s disease at Cornerstone Living in New Tripoli, Pa.
Mrs. Stevens had moved to the senior facility near Allentown 17 months ago. She lived in Germantown for 86 years.
Born in 1919 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Las Animas, Colo., while her father was stationed at the naval base, Mrs. Stevens returned with her parents to Puerto Rico after he finished his military service. In 1922, her family settled in Philadelphia permanently.
When Mrs. Stevens started public school, she spoke Spanish. A teacher lifted her onto a desk, asking her to perform a “Spanish dance” for her classmates, she told family.
“She was always proud of that,” said her son, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo. “It was a welcoming thing for her.” She found joy in dancing throughout her life, her son said.
While attending Vare Junior High School and South Philadelphia High School for Girls, Mrs. Stevens won the city championship in women’s gymnastics three times. She graduated from Simon Gratz High School in 1936 with varsity letters in gymnastics, baseball, and basketball.
Her yearbook predicted she would be chosen for the 1936 U.S. Olympic Team, and that came true. She was to go to Berlin, but gave her spot to an alternate.
“I’ll give you a choice: Either go to the Olympics or have a sweet 16 party,” she told her son she was offered by her parents. “She chose what was most important to her.”
After high school, Mrs. Stevens worked at a garment factory while hoping to become a professional dancer with the Rockettes in New York City. At only 5 feet tall, though, she was too short for the chorus line, and instead studied with the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Her skills as a gymnast helped her perform interpretive dance under Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino Reina, the father of film star Rita Hayworth. For a while, she toured with his act.
But life on the road was wearing. She settled in Philadelphia as a dance-studio instructor. It was there that she met Steve Stevens. The couple danced on the stages of the Carmen, Orpheum, and the Earle Theatres in Philadelphia.
They married in 1939. Her husband later became a printing company executive. She retired from teaching dance in 1940.
The couple had three sons, whom they raised in a house on East Logan Street that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mrs. Stevens volunteered for St. Francis of Assisi Church in Germantown, sewing vestments for the priests. She gave dance lessons as a volunteer, and was a Cub Scout den mother for 17 years.
When their sons left home, she and her husband joined the Germantown Cricket Club, where they played tennis and squash, and she served as a master of the bridge club for 18 years.
Her husband died in 1988. As a widow, Mrs. Stevens taught sewing and flower arranging at Pennsylvania State University’s Ambler campus. She volunteered as an instructor in the Philadelphia adult literacy program, using her bilingual skills.
Chosen for Catholic lay leadership, she earned 30 ministerial credits from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. She taught religion and was parish council member at St. Francis until the church closed in 2012.
When she turned 100, she received a letter from Gov. Tom Wolf, who wrote: “You grew to adulthood during one of the most remarkable centuries of our history. It is your contribution, and those of your generation, that have made Pennsylvania, and our nation, strong and prosperous.”
In addition to her son, she is survived by two other sons, Dennis R. Stevens and Gary L. Stevens; five grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
A visitation starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Church of St. Luke, 818 Main St., Stroudsburg, will be followed by a 10 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial. Interment will be at 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Philadelphia.