Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.”


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

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays beat Orioles, but tough stretch looms that could change their plans (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tuesday was a step back in the right direction for the Rays, who halted a season-high five-game losing streak by hanging on — and we mean that pretty much literally — for a 5-4 win over the Orioles.

    The Rays’ Tim Beckham celebrates with Mallex Smith after hitting a three-run homer in the second inning for a 5-0 lead.
  2. Diaz, Taddeo win easily in special Miami Senate primaries


    Two Miami state Senate candidates who raised and spent the most in their respective primaries — Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz and Democratic businesswoman Annette Taddeo — notched easy victories in a special election Tuesday night.

    Republican candidate Jose Felix Diaz is surrounded by supporters after he won the primary for Florida’s Senate District 40 race. Democrat Annette Taddeo, right, celebrates her victory with supporter Venus Lovely at BJ’s Restaurant in The Falls.
  3. In live debate, Kriseman and Baker ask St. Pete: Is the city better off?



    Mayoral candidates Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker made their best pitch to voters in front of a live television audience on Tuesday night. The candidates essentially asked this: Is the city better off now than it was four years ago?

    Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker debate in front of a live television audience during the City of St. Petersburg Mayoral Debate at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg on Tuesday evening. The event was sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
  4. Romano: It all comes down to sewage in this mayoral race

    Local Government

    Well, poop.

    Nothing else really matters, does it?

    Schools, economic development, public safety? Pfft. The Rays stadium, affordable housing, the pier? Ack. When it comes to the St. Petersburg mayoral election, sewage is the yin, the yang and the yuck.

    At Tuesday’s debate, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman said responsibility lies on him regarding the sewage crisis.
  5. Shooting sends man to hospital in St. Pete


    ST. PETERSBURG — Police were investigating a shooting that occurred around 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday and sent a man to the hospital.