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At 100, Helen Heath puts her life into Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

Helen Heath, left, treasurer and office manager for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, talks with operations manager Micki Eslich. Mrs. Heath celebrated her 100th birthday on Dec. 27.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Helen Heath, left, treasurer and office manager for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, talks with operations manager Micki Eslich. Mrs. Heath celebrated her 100th birthday on Dec. 27.

INDIAN SHORES — As far as hard workers go, Helen Heath puts in more than 50 hours per week at Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. There's only one catch.

"I'm 100 and a few days. I'm almost 101 now," said Mrs. Heath, who celebrated her birthday Dec. 27. She doesn't plan to retire any time soon.

The centenarian, who serves as treasurer and office manager, has worked for the sanctuary since its unofficial opening in 1971, when her only son, Ralph Heath Jr., brought home his first injured bird, a cormorant with a broken humerus. Word of mouth brought many more birds to the sanctuary at 18328 Gulf Blvd. in Indian Shores, and it now sees up to 10,000 birds per year.

The majority of Mrs. Heath's work is volunteered. She makes a little more than $15,000 per year, but she works long hours out of the goodness of her heart, according to Michelle Glean Simoneau, public relations coordinator for the sanctuary.

Mrs. Heath lives on the second floor of the main office, where she has lived since 1959, when she and her husband moved from Tampa into their longtime summer home, which is now the sanctuary. The property now houses more than 400 birds permanently, and a few hundred more live there temporarily, many in buildings that were converted from the Heaths' home.

"That used to be the recreation room," Mrs. Heath said, indicating the building next to the main office. "The kids would have parties down there. Now it's the sanctuary hospital."

A household filled with animals is nothing new for Mrs. Heath, whose son has been caring for injured animals since he was a little boy. At their original home in Tampa, neighborhood children would bring in injured rabbits, turtles and squirrels for medical care by the late Ralph Heath Sr., a surgeon and family doctor.

"My father was the type who'd never say no, so we would put all the injured animals back together," Heath said. "If the little creature would live, then we had a pet. Mom took care of all the little creatures. And over the years our house started turning into a zoological park."

The Heaths cared for snakes and hamsters, lizards and turtles, fish and birds. Their pet spider monkey once escaped its cage and climbed Mrs. Heath's dining room shelves. A 6-foot-long caiman that couldn't handle cold weather was kept in their bathtub in the winters; the alligator relative greeted Mrs. Heath at the front door one day as she arrived home from grocery shopping. They installed sliding doors above their bathtubs after that.

"In my life there's never been a dull moment, that's for sure. I never knew what he'd bring home," Mrs. Heath said of her son. "I was all for anything wholesome and worthwhile that he wanted to do. The animals were like patients. I thought it was worthwhile, and they needed care."

• • •

Mrs. Heath maintains copious records of anyone who has ever been a member or donated to the sanctuary, all neatly written out on 4 by 6 index cards and filed away into drawers alphabetically.

On her desk sits an old Smith Corona typewriter, its condition impeccable from constant care in the many decades she has used it. She had always used an adding machine, too, until hers broke last year.

"I haven't gotten into computers. I'm too old for that," she says. "I have my typewriter and my 4 by 6 cards, and they never go down."

Born in Macon, Ga., in 1909, Mrs. Heath studied elementary education at Georgia State College for Women, now Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. She moved to Tampa with her husband in the late 1930s, where she lived as a doctor's wife until she began working for the sanctuary.

"I was dragged into this," Mrs. Heath said. "But we always supported anything Ralph wanted to do."

For her 100th birthday, sanctuary workers held a surprise birthday party for her at the Friendly Fisherman restaurant at John's Pass in Madeira Beach. Two hundred and fifty people came.

Although Mrs. Heath said she never thought she'd live this long, she knows full well the secret to her longevity.

"Well your brain's going to stop working if you stop using it," she said. "You need to keep your mind busy and active, be motivated and have a purpose or reason to get up in the morning.

"I've always thought that if you can't make the world a little better, then what right do you have to occupy it? Our college president used to start off every chapel meeting with an old song I used to sing in preschool and Sunday school. It was called Brighten the Corner Where You Are," she said, reciting the song's chorus.

" 'Brighten the corner where you are, Someone in the harbor you may guide across the bar.' Oh, I can't remember how it goes. But the point is, if you can't brighten the world a little bit, then what have you done?"

Tania Karas can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or tkaras@sptimes.com.

At 100, Helen Heath puts her life into Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 5:18pm]
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