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She's 105 today, still healthy, happy, sharp

Carmen Baez Fernandez, now and as a young woman. “I happened to be pretty popular. I had seven fellas after me.”

AMY SCHERZER | Times

Carmen Baez Fernandez, now and as a young woman. “I happened to be pretty popular. I had seven fellas after me.”

Music, especially opera, keeps Carmen Baez Fernandez humming. Family will have her clapping as she turns 105 today.

Her talented offspring — four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren — will pass the microphone around at a birthday celebration at the Tampa Club.

"She was named for an opera and has stacks of CDs she listens to,'' said her daughter, Irene Fernandez Lamb. "She raised my sister and I on opera, and on their 10th birthdays she took her grandchildren to the Met in New York."

Her hearing's not great, hasn't been since she had diphtheria as a child. A few years ago, she lost sight in one eye.

Still, Mrs. Fernandez reads two or three historical romances a week. No mysteries or whodunits for her. She follows the news, voting a Republican ticket last year.

She rises early to dress herself, rather than impose on an aide at Hudson Manor, an assisted-living residence on Davis Islands.

Using a walker, she ambles to the dining hall on her own. Breakfast is her favorite meal.

"I am exceptionally healthy," Mrs. Fernandez said in her tidy room. "Life has been good."

Born in Philadelphia in 1904, Carmen Baez was 6 when her family boarded a boat in New York for Key West, a better climate for her brother's rheumatic fever. She remembers crying because she had to leave her toys behind.

Her father found a good job as a cigar packer but became ill and died in 1914. "He was only 39," she said. "I adored him.''

The Baez family returned to the north and moved in with an uncle. World War I was on, flu was epidemic and they were broke.

Tampa offered more opportunities and, at 14, she was a student at Woodward Wilson Junior High in Hyde Park. The family lived on Ross Avenue in Tampa Heights, supported by her brother.

"My mother never remarried and lived with me until the day she died,'' Mrs. Fernandez said.

By 16 she had quit school to contribute income. Cigar rolling was out because she couldn't stand the smell of tobacco. Instead, she worked the cosmetics counter at Cracowaner's Emporium on Franklin Street.

"She has always had a beautiful complexion," Mrs. Lamb said.

No wonder she could barely keep track of suitors vying to fill her dance card at Centro Asturiano and other social clubs.

"I happened to be pretty popular,'' she says, a twinkle in her eye. "Boys weren't afraid to chase after girls back then. I had seven fellas after me."

Hollywood heartthrobs Rudy Valentino and Clark Gable were the men who really made her swoon, she says, remembering chaperoned dates to the movies. But Armando Fernandez proved most persistent.

"He asked me to marry him so many times,'' she said, "but it was hard to make up my mind. Whenever a dance came along, I found a reason to fight so I could go with someone else."

They wed at her home on Sept. 27, 1923. "No luxuries" other than a new dress. "Tan with pleats below the knee and shoes to match." A skilled seamstress, Mrs. Fernandez always made her own clothes, and later, would sew for her daughters and grandchildren.

The home Armando and Carmen built in 1927 still stands at 2702 Royal Court, off Columbus Drive, in Riverside Heights.

"It was eight blocks from the streetcar,'' she recalled, "and we couldn't buy a car until we paid the mortgage."

Three years later, she learned to drive a Model A Ford, circa 1929, she thinks. She drove her husband to work at a cigar factory, where he eventually became a manager.

Two daughters were born at home, Irene and her late sister, Alma Fernandez Phillips, who were delivered by a midwife.

In 60 years of marriage, the Fernandezes traveled frequently, often to Cuba, where tobacco sellers wined and dined them.

Fifteen years ago while shopping at a bookstore, she felt chest and arm pain. "I drove myself to the hospital,'' she said. "They said I was having a heart attack."

Doctors opened her arteries and sent her home. She continued to drive until she was 95.

Wayne Phillips, her grandson and a Clearwater allergist, will emcee the festivities planned to entertain Grandma Carmen.

"She loves that we're all singers and all the children have beautiful voices,'' Mrs. Lamb said.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at (813) 226-3332 or ascherzer@sptimes.com.

She's 105 today, still healthy, happy, sharp 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 3:30am]
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