FOREST HILLS — Eleanor Diaz always said she wanted to live to be 100 years old, or until Jesus Christ came back to earth, whichever came first.
When she turned 100, she was in such good health and had such a tenacious spirit that people started thinking she had decided to wait for Jesus.
"Up until eight months ago, she was still going to Shapes in Carrollwood and swimming," said granddaughter Debbie Hartzner. "She lived alone, and she drove until she was 98."
Mrs. Diaz died of natural causes on Saturday. She was 103.
A lifelong Tampa resident and a deeply religious woman, Mrs. Diaz prayed and studied her Bible for hours every day. She left approximately a dozen journals detailing what she had prayed about and which Bible passages she had read each day.
"She was a Southern Baptist from the day she was born until, well, she's probably still a Southern Baptist," Hartzner said. "If there's a Southern Baptist church in heaven, that's probably where she is right now."
Born Eleanor Kennedy, Mrs. Diaz grew up in Hyde Park. Not long after she graduated from Hillsborough High School, she married her first husband. They had a daughter, Mrs. Diaz's only child. Her husband's work took him to the Canal Zone. She went with him for a short time but soon realized the marriage wasn't going to work and came back to Tampa.
A lot of people didn't approve of young mothers who divorced their husbands in those days, but she never much cared. She set about building a new life for herself and her young daughter.
It was difficult for a woman to own a business in those days, so Mrs. Diaz had to have herself declared "emancipated" before she could open a beauty salon downtown on Franklin Street. Hers was one of the few businesses in Tampa owned by a woman. She never stopped bragging about how she had the first electric perming machine in town.
One of her customers was dating a young man in Bible college. While Mrs. Diaz was doing her hair, the young woman's boyfriend would stand on Franklin Street reading Scripture to passers-by. The suitor's name? Billy Graham.
"From that day on, she was an admirer of Billy Graham and a supporter of his ministry," Hartzner said.
When she turned 100, Graham sent her one of his books, inscribed with a personal message.
Near her beauty salon was a barbershop owned by a young man named Bill Diaz. He became her second husband. He died of a heart attack in 1957, and Mrs. Diaz spent the last half-century of her life as a widow.
She loved her independent life. She moved to Forest Hills, and even though her friends complained that her neighborhood was so remote that they had to pack a lunch to visit her, she was never at a loss for company. People were drawn to her energy and her positive outlook.
In 1968, she started a catering business. Mrs. Diaz catered her granddaughter's wedding, and the results were so impressive that other people started asking for her services. Her catering business thrived until she gave it up when she was in her 80s.
Never in her nature to take things easy, Mrs. Diaz took her first trip to Europe when she was past 80. When people asked her the secret to living to be 100, she would tell them to stay busy, do purposeful work and never give up.
It took a couple of falls in recent months to slow her down. After the first fall, she went to rehab and everyone expected her to come home. A second fall made her start thinking maybe it was time to let go.
"When she realized she wasn't going to be able to go back home, she decided she wanted to go home to the Lord," said granddaughter Susan Larsen. "She accepted it, and she was at peace with it."
Besides Hartzner and Larsen, Mrs. Diaz is survived by granddaughters Sarah Housh and Holly Warriner, six great-grandchildren, eight great-great-grandchildren and stepson Bill Diaz.
Marty Clear writes life stories for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.