At 99, a St. Petersburg man finds meaning in the working life

ST. PETERSBURG

His alarm beeps at 3:30 a.m., drowning out the talk radio that keeps him company all night. He rolls over slowly and prays:

"Please, Lord, give me the strength to get up."

It takes a half-hour, sometimes longer, but eventually he hobbles to the kitchen to make tea. And three days a week, no matter how the old man feels, he steps into the cotton pants with the torn right knee and pulls on the white shirt with "Bama Sea Products" stitched above his pacemaker.

Then he wraps a paper towel around a piece of fried chicken, packs it into his Coleman cooler, and leaves his house. By now it is 5:45 a.m. The two-block walk to the bus takes him 20 minutes, his tiny steps scraping the sidewalk.

Four hours after he wakes, he arrives at work.

"Morning, Mr. Newton!" a moustached man calls.

"Hello, Cap'n!" he says, raising his hand. "Beautiful day."

To him, every day is. Newton Murray — everyone calls him Mr. Newton — is 99 years old, making him the oldest employee of Bama seafood and probably among the oldest anywhere. But he has no thoughts of retirement. After he puts away his cooler, he will set to work tidying up Bama's vast parking lots.

If you saw him there, you might think he was just holding up a broom. But it's really the other way around.

• • •

Bama Sea Products used to be in downtown St. Petersburg. But in 2000, owner John Stephens sold the waterfront property and bought the former Harry H. Bell & Sons cold storage on 28th Street between I-275 and the tracks.

Stephens acquired two warehouses with a walk-in freezer, offices and a retail shop — 90,000 square feet of enclosed space — plus parking lots and loading docks.

Total area to sweep: two city blocks.

The Bama seafood people were moving in when an old man showed up. He had a dark, wrinkled face, milky eyes, spindly arms.

"I am here for work," he told general manager John Jackson.

"They sold the building," Jackson remembers telling him. "This is no longer Harry Bell's."

"No matter, Cap'n," Jackson remembers him saying. "I come with the property."

Jackson let him stay. "What was I going to do?" The next day, the old man brought his own broom.

Mr. Newton, then 86, had been working as a janitor at the complex for more than 20 years, ever since he moved here from Trinidad. His salary then and now: minimum wage.

"Bama became my new family," he says. "I am blessed."

"He's just an amazing, quiet, old man with an unbelievable attitude," says Bob Joseph, who does Bama's purchasing.

"He cares about everyone around him but doesn't really share much of himself," says Brian Jackson, his supervisor.

What does maintenance man Karl Holycross see when he looks at Mr. Newton? Job security.

"If they don't let him go, I have nothing to worry about."

"He's here more for morale than productivity," says Michael Stephens, Bama's lawyer and son of the owner. "In some ways, he's a liability. Everyone worries he's going to tumble down the stairs.

"But he just makes you smile, makes you realize you have nothing to complain about. I know he must be hurting, but he's always in a good mood."

Besides, the lawyer says, no one has the heart to fire a 99-year-old man who never arrives late or leaves early, who never says no or asks for a raise.

"A couple of years ago, his supervisor came to my dad and said he was really worried about Mr. Newton. My dad agreed: We have to let him go so he doesn't get hurt. 'Okay,' said the supervisor. 'When are you going to tell him?' But my dad couldn't tell him. So it stopped there."

It takes Mr. Newton eight hours to clear both parking lots and the warehouse, if you include bathroom breaks and naps.

"We could probably get a young guy with a leaf blower to do his job in an hour," says the lawyer. "But this place just wouldn't be the same without Mr. Newton."

• • •

His home base at Bama is next to the rear loading dock. On his way there, he stops to rest every 25 steps or so. He has outlived one pacemaker and has had the second for six years.

He says he keeps going because the people at Bama depend on him. "I cannot let them down. They need me."

Just before 8 a.m., he reaches the stairs: seven of them, narrow and steep. Mr. Newton shifts his cooler to his back, grabs the railing with both hands and heaves himself up, pulling and panting, pausing after each step.

A forklift operator calls, "Morning, Mr. Newton!"

"Morning, Cap'n!"

He approaches the boiler room, steps inside. "High Voltage," says a sign on the door. He limps past walls filled with fan belts, bins of screws, broken motors. Behind the throbbing boiler, the door to the storage closet says, "Keep Out." Inside: a small refrigerator, two swivel chairs and a filing cabinet.

Mr. Newton's "office."

He takes the chicken out of his cooler, wraps it in another paper towel, eases it into the fridge. He pulls his bifocals from his shirt pocket, folds them into two paper towels. His gold Walmart watch gets three towels. His slim wallet merits four — each treasure wrapped according to its worth, each with its own space in the filing cabinet's bottom drawer.

He unbuttons his shirt, smooths it across a metal hanger, hangs it on the back wall; replaces his pants with coveralls, the same he has worn for 13 years. He's the only employee at Bama who still wears a uniform. In all that time, Stephens says, Mr. Newton has asked for only one thing: a new ball cap. But he won't wear it to work. "Only when I get dressed up."

At 8:30, he straps a too-big weight belt around his fragile waist, steps into white rubber boots and shoulders his worn broom. His supervisor bought him a new one months ago, but he won't use it until he wears out the old one.

• • •

He was the third of 11 children, the oldest boy, born on the island of Tobago in April 1914, a couple of months before World War I erupted. His father suffered a hernia and couldn't work; his mother sold coconuts and melons from their garden. In their cramped house at the edge of town, Newton and his siblings slept on the dirt floor.

When he was 8, he went "down the hill" to visit his grandmother and never returned home. She raised him, taught him to cook and clean. Together, they watched the first car cross the island, the first electric lights pierce the darkness. He lived through World War II and English rule, island independence and the first election.

"Queen Elizabeth is still my boss lady," he says.

Newton was in seventh grade when he dropped out of school to work as a yard boy. Since 1926, he has seldom taken a day off.

"Papa has always been a workaholic," says his stepdaughter, Daphne Brown. He moved to Trinidad as a young man, to work for Texaco. After a day in the oil fields, he would "come home and take care of cows, goats, pigs, this huge garden. And he was a minister. On Sundays, he would lead 60 people at the Baptist church and get everyone on fire.

"The day he stops working," she says, "will be the day he dies."

Mr. Newton married Daphne's mother, Mimie, in 1956, when Daphne and her sister, Verina, were teenagers. Verina moved to Miami in 1971, and five years later persuaded her mom and stepdad to come. When Mr. Newton relocated to Florida, he was 63 — just retired from Texaco after 40 years. He and his wife brought twin boys, age 12, whose mother asked them to give her sons a chance in America.

"He's always been such a loving, generous man," says Daphne, 74, who lives in Washington, D.C.

"Stubborn, bull-headed, has to have his own way," says Verina, 75, who lives down the street from her stepdad. "He just won't slow down."

Mr. Newton could have lived on his Texaco retirement, but as soon as he landed in St. Petersburg, he started looking for work. Someone introduced him to the folks at Harry Bell, where he worked until Bama bought the building and inherited its custodian.

In 1976 he bought a three-bedroom, $15,600 home, took out a $500 monthly mortgage, and paid off the loan in 28 years.

"I wish my wife could have seen that," he says. "She was a good cook, a good mother, a good seamstress. She died in 1985 and I never looked for another. Oh, she was a darling of a lady."

For years, he walked the 2.5 miles to work. It took almost two hours. He would leave before first light, get home in the dark. Later, he bought a bike, then a used Plymouth. One of the twins — he doesn't remember which — crashed the car into a wall in 1986. Since then, Mr. Newton has taken the bus.

The monthly senior pass costs $35 — almost five hours worth of sweeping. "I am lucky," he says. "God bless America!"

• • •

Just after 9 a.m., he starts clearing the back lot, a daunting expanse of asphalt about three football fields wide. Mr. Newton's broom is one foot across.

He takes small swipes, brushing straw wrappers and cigarette butts into neat piles the size of dinner plates. A Milky Way wrapper, a Sun Chips bag, a yellow lighter. Near the walkway, a mound of shrimp shells, a McDonald's cup.

Mr. Newton smiles and shakes his head. "It is okay. It keeps me working."

He bends to scoop soggy leaves from a drain. Lopes after a blue hair net, blowing like a tumbleweed. For a half-hour, in the morning sun, Mr. Newton listens to the scritch-scratch of his broom, his soundtrack for more than 30 years. Step, step, sweep. Step, step, sweep. Rest a minute, leaning on his broom like a cane. Step, step, sweep . . .

"I am slowing down," he says. He means in general, not just today. "My breath is short. I am getting tired." He has been forgetting things: whether he ate dinner or picked up his paycheck. In an hour, he clears only four parking spaces.

Then he heads inside, out of the heat, to take a break.

"How you feeling, Mr. Newton?" asks marketing director Dottie Guy.

"Never been better," he smiles. "And you?"

He builds his days on routine, every move an echo. Lunch is always at noon and the menu never changes: Wonder bread cradling a piece of fried chicken. A $15 bucket from Walmart lasts him 10 days.

Sometimes he eats in his "office," on the swivel stool by the fridge. Other times he holes up in a closet by the front loading dock. He always eats by himself. Often he falls asleep. "A few times we couldn't find him, and when we did, we worried he was dead," lawyer Stephens says.

"They let me rest here. And I know they will always come looking for me," says Mr. Newton. "I know here I am never alone."

• • •

His youngest sister, who lives in Connecticut, mails him cartons of frozen soup. She wants him to come live with her. His stepdaughters have offered to take him in. He has 17 grandchildren, he lost track of how many greats, plenty of family who would care for him.

But Mr. Newton is determined never to lean on anyone. He treasures his work, his independence. "I don't know God's plan," he says. "I keep asking, and he keeps me going."

"He's just trying to do the best he can until God takes the breath out of his body," stepdaughter Verina says. "And when he falls on his face and calls me, I come prop him up and he keeps on going."

Tuesdays Mr. Newton does laundry and rakes his yard. Thursdays he cooks a week's worth of suppers, mostly rice and beans. Neighbors drive him to Walmart to pick up prescriptions on Saturdays. A woman from church drives him to Unity of St. Petersburg every Sunday. "He brings Mother's Day cards, Father's Day cards, he's always in the same seat in the middle section," says the Rev. Fred Clare. "He's just a loving, sweet soul who touches people — a great example of how to live."

And three days a week, shivering in the winter and sweating in the summer, Mr. Newton clocks in at work, earning around $10,000 a year. Every two years, he saves $600 toward a ticket back to Trinidad; Bama gives him a $200 bonus to cover the rest. He never eats seafood at home — "Never anything so fancy, just by myself" — but he spends a week's wages on shrimp and mahi to bring to his relatives.

"It is nice there," says Mr. Newton. "For my 100th birthday, I will go back. But not for good. How could I? My job is here."

In all his years of working — more than 84 — no one has ever asked him if he likes his job. "Life can't always be easy, but you do your best and be grateful," he says.

It's not much, earning minimum wage to move dirt around a parking lot. But for now, Mr. Newton has a purpose, something to do. He matters.

People tell him he inspires them. If he misses a day for a doctor's appointment, his co-workers worry. When he's gone, he will leave a hole.

The meaning of life? "Only God knows," says Mr. Newton. But with his beaten broom, sweeping a sprawling seafood warehouse, he seems to have found the secret to not dying.

• • •

The parking lots are clean, the dustpan has been dumped. Mr. Newton inspects his work, then starts an exact reversal of the morning's routine: Unstrap the worn weight belt, climb out of coveralls, into the torn cotton pants. Button on the shirt with the company logo.

Slide out the bottom drawer of the file cabinet, unwrap wallet, glasses, and gold Walmart watch, pack them all in pockets.

Finally, he fishes out what's left of his lunch: half a drumstick. He rewraps it in another paper towel, shoulders the cooler, and turns out the closet light. "Night, Mr. Newton," calls the maintenance man.

"Night, Cap'n," he says. "See you Wednesday."

At 3:30, he hauls himself up a long flight of stairs to Bama's main office and fills out his timecard. Nobody requires him to do this, or cares if he doesn't. Then he eases himself back down the 30 steps and pads across the parking lot. At the bus stop, he stands beside a light pole, hiding from the sun in its 6-inch sliver of shade.

When his bus finally arrives, other riders greet him by name. "Hey, Mr. Newton!" calls a 40-something woman, a 20-something guy. "Hey, beautiful!" he calls. "Hey Cap'n!"

An hour later, he is back in his yard, where the watermelon vines twine around his fence and the mango trees droop with fruit. Through his bedroom window, talk radio is still blaring.

"I could not stay here all day, alone in this house. What would I do? Watch Judge Joe Brown?" he asks, fingering his keys.

He unlocks the gate, then the door. Sinks into a chair draped with a bed sheet. He's too tired to make tea. Looking up, he can see framed portraits of Jesus, the twin boys he raised, his wife.

Across from him, on a faded poster in the hall, is a list she wrote almost 30 years ago. She made it for the boys, but Mr. Newton still follows it religiously.

Things to do today:

1. Read Bible and talk to God.

2. Be considerate of everyone.

3. Show my family I love them.

4. Do my best in all my work.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

At 99, a St. Petersburg man finds meaning in the working life 07/18/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 2:52pm]

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