FLORENCE -- Olga Cathemer and Adolfo “Harpo” Celaya, unforgettable personalities who’ve each left indelible impressions on Florence, will be the grand marshals for this year’s Junior Parada parade.

Cathemer is a lifelong Arizona resident and retired Florence school teacher. Growing up in Chandler, the only sister to seven brothers, she said music was always a big part of her life.

“I could not have grown up complete without music in my life,” she told PinalCentral earlier this year as her 105th birthday approached. When she was in high school, she was a featured singer on a morning radio show at a station in Phoenix, singing each morning for half an hour.

She was a longtime member of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Florence and was choir director there for many years. She also belonged to the Florence Woman’s Club, the Junior Club and the Federation Club, serving for a time as secretary and later vice president. She worked as a secretary and bookkeeper for Clemans Cattle Company and Clemans Motors.

In 1956, her husband, Tom, died. With a son and a daughter still living at home, she took a job in the Pinal County Board of Supervisors office while also attending Arizona State University.

In 1964, Cathemer graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in education and became a remedial reading specialist. She earned a master’s degree a few years later and spent a career teaching in Florence.

She has outlived all four of her children and has three grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren.

Junior Parada organizers said of Cathemer, “She has impacted the lives of countless people, has always been reserved, thoughtful and has a very intellectual mind that’s always being sharpened with a good book!

“She’s held many titles and positions over the years — many of which have had an everlasting effect in our community and the organizations she’s been involved with. The one thing is absolutely for certain with Olga, she’s truly a one-of-a-kind lady that’s an absolute blessing to anyone she meets!”

Celaya was born in Florence in 1927 to Amparo Encinas Celaya and Adolfo Celaya Sr. As a 17-year-old sailor, he was stationed aboard the USS Indianapolis when the ship unloaded parts for the atom bomb at the tropical island of Tinian. The bomb would later be dropped on Hiroshima. The ship was on its way back to the Philippines when a Japanese submarine sank it with a torpedo.

Of the 1,200 men aboard, 400 never made it into the water. The rest, Celaya among them, hit the choppy seas, where the horror really began. As the men clung to life rafts or life vests, sharks began to attack. When their rescue came almost five days later, only 316 men were pulled alive from the deadly sea.

It has been called the worst at-sea disaster in U.S. naval history. Interest in the ship and the attack remain high, and Celaya has given presentations on it at high schools, junior colleges and elsewhere, most recently this month on Veterans Day at McFarland State Historic Park in Florence.

In 2017, the U.S. Post Office in Florence was named in Celaya’s honor. Last year, at age 93, Celaya and the seven other living survivors received the Congressional Gold Medal on the 75th anniversary of the attack.

After his Navy service, Celaya returned home to Florence, attended Florence High School and played on Florence’s 1947 state championship basketball team. The Florence Union High School Gophers out-played the best teams in the state to win the championship in Tucson that year. Celaya recalled to the Florence Reminder years ago that a tired Florence team managed to whip Douglas for “one of the biggest upsets anyone ever pulled.”

Celaya ran a heating and air-conditioning business with his son and lived in San Jose, California, for many years before returning to his hometown.

Jr Parada Podcast 2021
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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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