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At 100, Mr. Newton still working, just a little slower (w/video)

ST. PETERSBURG

His boss at Bama Sea Products told him to take Friday off. Sleep in, relax. Enjoy your birthday.

Oh, and stop by the warehouse so we can buy you lunch.

Newton Murray turned 100 this week.

And every day he is able, he still wakes at 3:30 a.m., makes tea, wraps a paper towel around a piece of Walmart fried chicken, and carries his little Coleman cooler two blocks to the bus. He gets to work by 8 a.m. and sweeps inside and around the sprawling buildings, as big as two city blocks. He naps in the supply room.

He never thinks of retiring. "Why would I?" he asks in a thick island accent. "As long as you are still alive, you got to do something."

• • •

Mr. Newton, as everyone at Bama calls him, has been working at the warehouse off 28th Street S longer than anyone can remember. He was there for more than two decades when it was Harry H. Bell & Sons' cold storage. And in 2000, when Bell sold the buildings to Bama, the new manager found this thin, dark old man in coveralls standing on the steps.

"I come with the property," Mr. Newton declared. "I do the cleaning here. I work very hard."

Manager John Jackson let him stay. "What was I going to do?"

Last year, Mr. Newton started slowing down, and cut back to working three days. Lately, he has been tired and pained by kidney stones, so he has been working fewer days.

He wasn't sure, Friday, whether he could make the walk to the bus stop by lunch, so his neighbor gave him a ride.

He was born in Tobago, the third of 11 children, the year World War I erupted. In the seventh grade he left school to work as a yard boy — and since then, has seldom taken a day off.

For 40 years, he worked for Texaco. In 1971, he and his wife followed their daughter to Florida. They could have lived off his retirement, but he wanted to work. He has never made more than minimum wage.

"I have never seen anyone who is in such a good mood all the time, always smiling, always happy, always asking about everyone else," said John Ullrich, who used to do audits at Bama.

"No matter what kind of day you're having," said owner John Stephens, "it always gets better when you see Mr. Newton."

• • •

At the warehouse, he waited inside his "office" — a tiny closet in the back of the boiler room. Mr. Newton showed his friend the metal filing cabinet where he hides his wallet, the hanger with his faded jumpsuit, which he has worn for 13 years.

Friday, though, he was dressed up: tan slacks, tan collared shirt, and an old Harry Bell ballcap.

His boss called him into the shipping room at 1:30.

As Mr. Newton pushed in the swinging door, 80 employees and other well-wishers shouted, "Happy birthday!"

They had tied balloon bouquets to the metal tables, set aside the shrimp to make room for cupcakes, ordered trays of barbecue and baked beans. Stephens had fried vats of chicken, which Mr. Newton declared was "Better even than Walmart's!"

"How you feeling, Mr. Newton? I think it's time for you to relax and take it easy," said Rosemary Reynolds, the company's logistics manager.

"Good, good. All is good," said Mr. Newton. "And you are a lovely lady."

He says he doesn't know how or why he has lived this long. His wife died years ago, his children are grown and gone. He stays by himself in the tidy house he paid off years ago and still makes it to church every Sunday.

"I didn't believe I would make it this far. Of course, I did not do it. It was the bossman up there," he said, smiling and pointing to the sky. "He decides."

He has seen so much in his lifetime: The first car, first airplane, first black president. "I never thought I would live to see that."

Near the end of the luncheon, a trim woman in a suit walked up to Mr. Newton to shake his hand. She had read about him and wanted to congratulate him. "I'm Kathy Castor," she said — the U.S. representative from Florida's 14th congressional district.

"I shared your story with President Obama, and he's sending you a birthday card."

At 100, Mr. Newton still working, just a little slower (w/video) 04/04/14 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2014 5:57pm]
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