Thirty-five years ago, the sprawling west Pasco subdivision of Regency Park attracted retirees like Eddie and Elsie Graham. The new houses glistened, lawns were thick and green. Residents proudly proclaimed their home states on their mailboxes – Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio.
And they looked out for each other. The Security Patrol blossomed to 150 volunteers, and homeowners were more than willing to chip in for its service, not that there was much crime back then. Eddie, who had been a volunteer firefighter on Long Island, N.Y., loved being the eyes and ears of his community.
These days, Eddie doesn't see all that well. You have to get right up to his face if you want him to hear you. Age has taken a toll —on both Eddie and his community. Renters have replaced many of the homeowners, and the Safety Patrol has dwindled to 42 members. For them, Eddie Graham serves a unique purpose.
"He is our inspiration,'' says Gail Havee, president of the group. "Eddie is a very special, wonderful man.''
At 101, Eddie still rides with the Security Patrol. It takes him longer to shuffle to the car, and he isn't likely to spot anything suspicious. But just having him around makes everyone feel better. And younger. Like Doris and Art O'Connell, who live around the corner and check in on Eddie. "I'm 84,'' says Doris, a former nurse. Art is 93. Mere whippersnappers.
Eddie's daughter, Martha Eilermann of Jacksonville, just took her pop on a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. She's 77. "I had trouble keeping up with him,'' she said with a laugh. "He loves the slot machines.''
Eddie has a one-arm bandit in his garage, next to a ham radio station and an ancient stereo that has an 8-track stereo tape stuck in it: "25 Polkas.'' He loves his music. His son, also named Eddie, is a pretty well-known local jazz drummer. He's only 71.
During World War I, when Eddie was 10, his mom took him to a nickelodeon in New York, down by the Steinway piano factory, where he sang songs to benefit the war savings bond effort. Red Cross volunteers stood on stage and passed the hat. At his 100th birthday party at the Regency Park clubhouse on Sept. 25, 2007, he sang those same songs again. And he sang them for me at his house last week. Didn't miss a word.
"Not bad, eh?'' he said.
He has an extraordinary memory and a keen wit. He's proud of his relative independence, to be able to remain in his home. He has lots of friends checking on him, bringing him meals. "But I get up every day, shave and shower,'' he said.
He has a million stories. He signed his mother's name to join the Naval reserve at age 17 and trained as a radio operator aboard a destroyer. A year later, he gave a woman who happened to be a tattoo artist a ride to Philadelphia and wound up with a devil's head on his right forearm. His skin there is shriveled, but he doesn't run from the question when you ask about that purple blotch.
"Wayward youth,'' he said. "Certain people leave an impression on you.''
Like Elsie. She rode on the back of Eddie's motorcycle without fear. He liked that. They got hitched in Astoria, N.Y., on May 18, 1929.
During World War II, Eddie patrolled the New York coast with the Coast Guard. About that time, he helped found a volunteer engine company within the New Hyde Park Fire Department. That would turn out to be one of his proudest accomplishments. And at his 100th birthday party, five officers with the department made Eddie an honorary captain.
Eddie and Elsie moved to Miami in 1949. He ran a gas station for a year (''I hated it. Way too hard.''), worked on cargo planes and later ordered supplies for the Miami school system.
They heard you could buy a nice home cheap in western Pasco County. "It took us five minutes to decide to buy our house in Regency Park,'' he said. They lived in a travel trailer while it was under construction.
Eddie and Elsie had many good years together before she died in 2002.
Today, when you ask Eddie how he's doing, he answers, "Alive and well.'' His daughter, Martha, says he's always telling people don't get old, "but he loves being old.'' People give him respect that can only come with lasting this long.
He doesn't offer any secrets for longevity other than "stay away from doctors.'' He stopped drinking alcohol in the 1930s, he said, "because I saw people rushing to get to the local bar when their wife and kids were sitting at home. I thought that was stupid.''
He loves spaghetti and baked fish at La Fontana on U.S. 19, his favorite restaurant.
"There's nothing I can't eat.''
The fire department in New Hyde Park turns 100 next year. Captain Eddie Graham plans to be there. His little girl will drive him up.
"Knock on wood,'' he says with a smile.