SUN CITY CENTER — Some thought she was immortal.
The 90-year-olds, those in their mere 80s — they'd marvel as she sauntered around the room in high heels. Always dressed to the nines and unfailingly polite, even as she wolfed down her lunch and asked for seconds.
At 108, Angelina Padula gave them hope.
"They were like, 'If she can keep going, I can keep going,' " said Mary Jo McKay, section manager of Hillsborough County's senior centers.
Keep going she did, until Saturday (April 9, 2011).
Mrs. Padula died at South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center after a five-day decline, said her son-in-law and caregiver, Ed Rose.
"You can't feel too bad," Rose said. "I knew it was coming, you know, obviously. … But it was the same old Angie up until then."
She was born in 1903 in Montemurro, Italy — the youngest of more than a dozen siblings. Her parents ran an inn and restaurant. In 1921, she married an American, Rocco Padula, and boarded a ship to New York.
Rose said no one's quite sure how the two met. A family rumor says the marriage was arranged.
Arranged or not, the two settled happily in Albany — Rocco running a chain of barbershops and hotels and Angie as a homemaker. She learned English by watching matinees at the theater.
The couple adopted one daughter, Lucille, and raised four nephews.
Rocco Padula died in 1961.
In 1994, Mrs. Padula came to live with her daughter and son-in-law in Valrico.
When Lucille died in 2003, Rose became Mrs. Padula's primary caretaker at their new home in Sun City Center.
"I promised my wife," Rose said.
Every morning, Rose woke up and made Mrs. Padula breakfast before driving her to the Ruskin Senior Center.
Every night they'd eat dinner together and sip wine. They sat in silence the past few years, since Mrs. Padula had stopped talking, but Rose never regarded the ritual as a burden.
"Companionship," is the word he uses.
Each year, he threw her a birthday party. At this year's bash on Feb. 22 at the Ruskin center, Mrs. Padula busied herself with a massive hunk of cake as McKay presented accolades from the Hillsborough County Commission, Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
They played Moon River and sang Happy Birthday.
Mrs. Padula sat and smiled.
Certainly one of the oldest residents of Hillsborough County, Mrs. Padula was the oldest person who attended any of the county's eight adult day care programs, said McKay.
"Everybody always asked her about the secret to long life," McKay said, recalling Mrs. Padula's more lucid days. "She would say, 'Be nice to everyone all the time, drink your wine and rest.' "
She refused to wear anything but dresses, many of which she sewed herself. Until the last year, she wouldn't leave the house without panty hose and heels.
A nurse once asked whether the shoes were safe, and was told "it would be unsafe for us to suggest otherwise," McKay remembered.
In response to a steady stream of compliments, Mrs. Padula never forgot a thank-you, McKay said, but "she said it like she knew she was looking good."
Even when dementia set in, robbing her of conversation, Mrs. Padula didn't abandon her properness.
Nor her appetite.
"She ate like a horse," Rose said. "With perfect table manners."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.