NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> The Byelich clan gathered on Friday, May 4 to celebrate the family’s matriarch - Sara Byelich McClain - during a surprise 90th birthday reception held at the historic Newtown Theatre.
As Sara stepped out of the car thinking she was going to dinner, cheers erupted as family members broke into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” and she was presented with a special sash and tiara to wear.
“Oh my God I can’t believe this,” she said. “That’s my crowd,” she said beaming with pride at the multi-generational gathering.
Born Sara Elizabeth Wilkes on May 7, 1928 and raised on Court Street, she lived most of her life in Newtown, graduating from Newtown High School (now the Chancellor Center) in 1946.
She married her first husband, Michael, just out of high school and together they had 13 kids, raising them at the family homestead on Washington Avenue. He operated his own company in town, Byelich Paving, before he passed away at the age of 58.
Sara devoted much of her life to raising her family. Over the years, she also worked as a bookkeeper at the Town Shop Boutique and for Bruce Lesser Custom Builders. One of her first jobs as a teenager was setting up pins at the bowling alley on North State Street. She also worked at the Delaware Valley Advance (now The Advance of Bucks County) during her teenage years..
As images of Sara’s life flashed across the large movie screen inside the oldest operating theater in the nation, a smile broke across her face as the memories of yesteryear sparkled in her eyes.
“There’s my dad. There’s my mom. There’s my first husband and my first bunch of kids,” she said, pointing out each face, each moment like it was yesterday.
“I have the best kids in the world,” she said. “I just look at them and they grab me by my heart. And they are so good to one another. They just love each other and would do anything in the world for each other. Once you’re a Byelich you’re always a Byelich,” she said with a broad smile. “And that’s what I told him,” she said of her second husband.
Sara remarried about 28 years ago to her former high school flame, Frank McClain a veteran of three wars - World War II, Vietnam and Korea.
Before Sara met Michael, she and Frank were an item. The two, however, lost touch after he left Newtown to enter the service.
After Michael passed away, in an ironic twist of fate Sara ran into Frank’s brother who told her that Frank’s wife had passed away and encouraged the two to reconnect, which they did.
“And they instantly picked where they left off,” said her son, Jim Byelich.
They have now been happily married for the past 28 years.
“My Mom worked hard all of her life raising us, which was a lot,” said Jim. “Frank came along and she didn’t have to do that anymore. He takes care of her and we just can’t be thankful enough for him.”
The Byelich siblings, absent three who have since passed away - Michael, Gerald and Martha - gathered with their extended families for a multi-generational photo on the steps of the historic theatre - its movie billboards decorated with balloons in the shape of a 90 and its “now showing” sandwich board announcing the very special milestone.
Throughout the evening celebration, the Byelich siblings - Howard, Doris Ehret, Susan, David, Lori Markloff, Jim, Sara Weight, Marijean Johnson, Terri Brunell and Mark - reflected on their Mom, their lives growing up in Newtown and special family occasions like trips to Greenwood Dairy for ice cream.
But the holidays - especially Christmas - were especially memorable.
Sara would literally stay up all night decorating the house on Christmas Eve so when the kids got up in the morning they were greeted by a magical transformation.
“My Mom killed herself to have an amazing Christmas,” said Jim. “She’d be up all night wrapping presents, trimming the tree the night before.”
“She didn’t put up one decoration until Christmas Eve,” said Marijean Byelich Johnson. “It was magical what she did.”
She would then have all the kids stand on the stairs from the youngest to the oldest. She’d plug the lights in and then one by one they would be invited to come down.
“And the presents would be strewn out all over the living room,” said Marijean.
“She made Christmas special for all of us,” said Jim.
Easter was the same, said Jim and Marijean. “She’d make a basket for each of us that was ridiculous in the amount of stuff inside,” said Jim.
Jim also fondly recalled lining the back of his father’s pickup truck with blankets and all the kids piling in for a ride to Greenwood Dairies for ice cream.
There were also the trips to the laundry where 25 baskets of clothing were piled into the back of a truck for the trip to Langhorne. Sara would entice a volunteer from her brood with the promise of a soda and a slice of pizza at Brothers.
“It was a good time because it was about the only time that you could have a one on one conversation with Mom,” said Marijean.
“Firm, but fair,” is how Jim described his mom when he was a kid. “She ran a tight ship. And she had to be firm to keep us all in line.”
“She delegated duties is what she did,” added David. “I give a lot of credit to the girls in my family for picking up the slack.”
“Growing up, Mom is someone you didn’t want to mess with,” said Lori Brunell. “If she told you to do something, you had better do it because the aftermath wasn’t worth it.”
Looking back, Howard said his parents did something right in raising their family.
“If you look at all these kids, none are strung out on drugs and everybody’s successful. And everybody pitches in too. If one person goes down, everybody is there to help. And it’s always been that way.”
Howard and his eldest sibling, Michael, now deceased, served in Vietnam. Howard was in U.S. Army intelligence.
The youngest of the clan, Mark Byelich, a member of the Council Rock School Board and a successful financial planner based in Newtown, agreed with his brothers and sisters.
“She was tough,” he said. “And for me, being number 13, what it taught me was independence. Mom worked. Dad worked when I was a kid and I counted on my older siblings for a lot,” he said.
“I didn’t know anything different, but it’s been great growing up in this family,” he said, reveling in the opportunity to join his extended family for what he called the “ultimate celebration of life.
“This is a huge milestone for Mom, after having 13 kids and everything she went through. They had a choice to have 13 kids, but there aren’t a lot of extras when you have all those kids,” he said. “Think about all the things that both of them had to give up to take care of the kids. That’s why for her being here on her 90th birthday is a big deal.
“I’m amazed at the community of people that she created,” he added. “Think about it - there’s more than 100 grandkids and great-grandkids. It really is almost a village.”
His wish for his mom on her milestone birthday is simple and is shared by every member of the Byelich clan.
“Just happiness,” he said.