100-year-old Isabelle Chang’s secret to a happy life? Read. Read. Read.


By Evan Walsh, Contributing Writer

100-year-old Isabelle Chang of Shrewsbury’s love of reading led her into her career as a librarian and author.Photo/Evan Walsh
100-year-old Isabelle Chang of Shrewsbury’s love of reading led her into her career as a librarian and author.
Photo/Evan Walsh

SHREWSBURY – Sitting at her kitchen table, Isabelle Chang hears the back door swing open. It’s her neighbor delivering a container full of homemade soup. 

Moments later, the door flies open again, this time revealing a Meals on Wheels driver, who greets Chang and drops off lunch. 

Alice Canty, Chang’s longtime friend, sits close to the living room. The space is lined with cards, well-wishes, and awards: Chang’s 2013 Spirit of Shrewsbury Grand Marshal plaque; medals, citations and proclamations from every level of government; and, centrally located near the mantel, a sign that reads, “Happy 100th Birthday, Mrs. Chang!” created by a local kindergarten class. 

Chang is a woman well-cared for.


A centenarian’s start

Though Chang hit the 100-year mark on Feb. 20, her road to become a centenarian started in Boston’s Chinatown in 1924. A first-generation American, Chang was the fifth of nine children. Although her father, a tea merchant, and mother had no post-secondary education, Chang always loved to learn. In particular, she loved books. In 1946, she graduated from Simmons College with a degree in library science.

“I was always a dreamer. My father always had a book in his hands, and that’s when I first started to get thinking about books. If you don’t know something, you can probably find it in some book somewhere,” Chang said, noting how she’ll give almost any book a chance. 

After completing her undergraduate degree, Chang – following her parents wishes – went to Yale University to study Chinese culture. That’s where she met Min Chueh “M.C.” Chang, who would later co-develop the birth-control pill and in-vitro fertilization. 

M.C. Chang brought Isabelle Chang to Shrewsbury after getting married in 1948, conducting research at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, now the UMass Maple Avenue facility. If you look closely at the property, you’ll notice the Chang Building.

While M.C. Chang studied and made scientific advances, Isabelle Chang supported the family by raising their three children – Francis Hugh “Poncho,” Claudia, and Pamela. M.C. Chang died in 1991 at the age of 82, and he is buried at Mountain View Cemetery.

But at Yale, M.C. Chang wasn’t the world-renowned scientist he’s remembered as today: To Isabelle Chang, he was just a mutual friend. Yet, the two friends-of-friends would eventually meet, even though Isabelle Chang was skeptical at first.

“My friend said, ‘I have a friend I want you to meet,’” Isabelle Chang remembered, “I said, ‘Oh whatever.’ It didn’t matter to me. I thought he was another one of those eggheads. I said, ‘I’ll be polite.’”  


Making Shrewsbury home

While Isabelle Chang never meant to call Shrewsbury home, she quickly settled into the community. Isabelle and M.C. Chang befriended the Borgatti family – including Antonio and Brigida, and children Bobby, Olga, Elsa, and Anthony “Spag.” The Changs and Borgattis would often partake in spaghetti dinners. 

Isabelle Chang became close with Olive Borgatti, Spag Borgatti’s wife, and the two started serving on the Shrewsbury Public Library Board of Trustees with Olive Borgatti in 1958. But, after only one year, Chang was asked to resign from the Board of Trustees: She hadn’t done anything wrong, she was just the only trained librarian in town, and Shrewsbury needed a new library director. 

Olive Borgatti persuaded Chang to take the role, which came with adapted hours that allowed Chang to care for her children. When she started the job, the Borgattis donated $25,000 to the library, enough to buy a new bookmobile, which brought books to residents throughout town. 

The donation was of great importance to Chang, who had always loved reading. After roughly five years at the town library, she spent 17 years at school libraries throughout Shrewsbury, cataloging books, dealing with students and passing on her love of reading. 

“When I moved to the schools, all the teachers who couldn’t handle the brats sent them to the library. They’re shooting paper airplanes and cutting up my encyclopedia. I sent them back, and these teachers had nowhere else to put them. They didn’t like me. I told the superintendent, ‘You’re paying a lot for a babysitter,’” Chang recalled.

For Chang, there was nothing more satisfying than helping students learn.

“If you want to know the truth, go to the library. The world is full of opinions, but if you’ve read enough books, you can form your own opinions. I think that’s really important. I really think that. I tried my best to teach the kids how to find the proper reference books,” she remembered.

Chang has also published several books, including Chinese folktales, cookbooks and pieces about Shrewsbury history. Her work “Artemas Ward: A Fictionalized Account of An Unsung Hero” was published by Harvard Press in 2022. She has also published “The Spirit of Shrewsbury: Exemplary Lives,” which details M.C. Chang’s journey, her family’s relationship with the Borgattis and more on Artemas Ward.

Why did she start writing? Simple. “You have to focus on something. If that’s your truth, speak it,” she said.


100-year-old Shrewsbury celebrity

Early in the morning on Feb. 20, 2024, Chang saw four police cruisers parked along the road. Slowly, officers began to leave their cars and head toward her front door. She couldn’t help but be slightly suspicious.

“They had four cruisers. I said, ‘Did I murder someone and didn’t know it?’ I thought they’d maybe arrest me,” she said.

Instead, the police arrived with a cupcake and sang “Happy Birthday” to Chang. The Shrewsbury Police Department posted the interaction on Facebook, where it garnered nearly 1,000 likes and over 100 comments from community members. Chang knows the police department well; she calls the station at 6 a.m. daily as part of the police’s R.U.O.K. program, designed for citizens living alone. 

To get to 100, Chang said, “It’s just a matter of one step in front of the other.” If you want a life as long as hers, she suggests you do three things: eat properly, exercise (Chang still walks outside daily) and read. Read. Read. Read.  

“Just be a good human being – just as much as you can. Try to make this a better world,” she said. 

Isabelle Chang – role model listed in Who’s Who – Fifty Plus Advocate

‘Spag’s’ – a Shrewsbury retail institution for more than half a century (fiftyplusadvocate.com)

After playing basketball for Shrewsbury 66 years ago, Bryan returns to the court (fiftyplusadvocate.com)