HOLIDAY — Bea Schrader would rather not talk about her birthday.
"What woman wants people discussing her age?" she told her niece.
But with each year, letting the day pass quietly becomes less likely as her age becomes more incredible. Schrader turns 107 years old on Friday. She is in good health, looking decades younger than her age, her steps sound and sure, though her eyesight is failing and she can't hear well, even with her hearing aids. She has numbness in her fingers, which is frustrating for her, a fiercely independent woman who has always been active, working, walking, doing what she wishes. Schrader is petite and eats what she wants and takes medicine only for her blood pressure. She participated in exercise classes until last year, when she started using her walker more often.
"I'm thankful I can still take care of myself," she said. "But it's getting harder all the time."
On Tuesday, Sunshine Christian Homes — the assisted living facility in Holiday where she's lived for 22 years — held a birthday party for her. Last year she nearly refused to come, saying she didn't want the fuss. She doesn't like being the center of attention. This year the party was a surprise, though Schrader was suspicious when her hair appointment was switched to Tuesday morning and people kept telling her happy birthday. She did not wear a hat or tiara, as the organizers requested guests to do, though she did enjoy the cake and, when it was finished, said the party was lovely. She'll likely spend Friday in the low-key way she wishes, watching her soap operas, maybe going out for ice cream with her niece, Robin Irby, who visits often. Irby said Schrader didn't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol and ate little junk food throughout her life.
Schrader said she doesn't know why she's lived so long.
"I don't have a secret," she said. "I just live one day at a time."
The oldest person in the world is 116-year-old Besse Cooper of Tennessee, according to the Gerontology Research Group. The eldest in Florida is Clearwater resident Elsie Thompson, who, at 113, is also the ninth-oldest person in the world.
Schrader isn't interested in joining the longevity contest.
"Noooo," she said loudly. "I don't even want to be 108."
She was born Nov. 23, 1905, in Poplar Bluff, Mo., one of five siblings, and remembers playing with metal hoops and making a seesaw out of a log and a plank. She remembers horses and buggies and the family's first radio and first car. At 23, she married a musician named Danny who played violin in a big band. They lived in Miami and danced together whenever they could. She had many jobs, telephone operator, waiter, bookkeeper, secretary. She and Danny, who served in World War II, didn't have children; he died at age 59 from a heart attack. She never remarried and has a photo of Danny, young and handsome, by her bed. In her 80s, Schrader moved to Holiday to be closer to her brother, who also lived at Sunshine Christian Homes. He died a few years ago, leaving Schrader the only sibling left.
Her dear friend Katie Gantt, who also lives at Sunshine, asked how she is dealing with outliving so many people she's loved.
"It's hard," Gantt said Schrader told her, "but I'm here."
That matter-of-fact answer is typical of Schrader, who is a beloved mystery at Sunshine, as she is quiet, private and doesn't vocalize the things staffers would love to know: her favorite time period, what she thinks of society today, tales of her adventures. Susan Rand, the resident care director who has known her for more than 10 years, respects Schrader's spirit and strength.
"She's an extraordinary woman," Rand said.
Though she has her secrets — Rand said she saw two different first names for Schrader in their records: Byrnece and Beulah.
"I told her, 'You're going to have to tell me what your name is,' " Rand said. "She just started laughing and walked away."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.