Sunday, November 18, 2018

Check this off the 100th birthday bucket list

CLEARWATER — Rain fell at Spectrum Field on Wednesday afternoon. The Clearwater Threshers and Fort Myers Miracle sat out a two-hour delay. So did the pitcher who would make the first toss.

"Well, I've waited this long," she said.

There are a lot of great pitchers. Clayton Kershaw. Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander. Wednesday, my favorite pitcher was a 5-foot-4, silver-haired right-hander named Ila St. John. She lives in Largo — and turns 100 years old on Friday. Sometimes big gifts come in small packages.

To celebrate, Ila threw the ceremonial first pitch to cheers from behind home plate, from friends and support staff from Imperial Palms Apartments, an independent living facility in Largo. They made Happy Birthday signs. Imperial Palms resident Richard Roering held up a handmade "Ila for President" poster.

Ila doesn't look 100. Not even close. She sometimes uses a cane or walker, for balance, but when she doesn't, there's nearly a spring to her step. She practiced for Wednesday by throwing several times outside her place, where the American flag is always flying.

She wore red, white and blue to Wednesday's game, a natural carryover from Memorial Day. Ila is military. She served our country for 20 years in the Army, commanding a company three times, retiring as a major.
Ila is a lot of other things besides that.

"She's my hero," said Imperial Palms resident coordinator Joan Helm.
"Ila is beloved," said Jim Metzger, the facility's transportation director, who often played catch with Ila to warm her up for Wednesday.

During the rain delay, I bought Ila a hot dog.

"Oh, you've got to have a hot dog at a baseball game," she said.

No mustard, no relish.

"Just plain," Ila said.

To celebrate her impending 100th birthday, Ila St. John throws out the first pitch at Wednesday’s Florida State League game in Clearwater. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Everyone always talks about Ila. Her wits are all about her. She still does her own shopping. Everyone talks about Ila's smile and Ila's laugh, and how Ila will bring overheated residents meetings to a standstill by pounding a fist on a table.

"Be courteous!" she'll shout.

She was born a few months before the end of World War I. She grew up on a farm in Michigan, near Flint. She was 23, coming from church with her parents, when the radio said Pearl Harbor had been attacked. She enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942. She drove a truck during part of the war. That's so Ila, taming that beast. Nothing to it.

By the way, the Threshers will hold a military appreciation night Saturday, featuring the dedication of a POW/MIA chair that will be permanently displayed at Spectrum Field. Ila loves stuff like that. As for her …

"I just wanted to serve," she said.

That Ila did, serving in France, Japan, seeing the world as she went. Once, she was on a transport ship that was caught in a Pacific Ocean typhoon. "I thought that was it," Ila said. She retired to Tampa Bay in 1963.

Ila kept serving, at her church, Skycrest United Methodist, which she joined 55 years ago, or doing Meals on Wheels or as a member of the local Girl Scouts Council.

"If you're not doing something, what is there?" Ila asked. "You have to keep busy or you're just here. We have to appreciate what we have, appreciate every day."

She has had hip and shoulder replacement surgeries. Her eyes give her problems. But Ila keeps motoring. For her 95th birthday, she rode in a hot air balloon. She'd to like go on a Goodyear blimp.

"I love the clouds," Ila said.

Ila St. John does a little pre-pitch warmup along with friend Jack Sanders, left, and Threshers assistant general manager Dan McDonough. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

She grew up a Detroit Tigers fan. Her father took Ila and her brothers to games. Ila remembers some of her heroes' names: Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer. The Tigers won their first World Series in 1935, when Ila was 17. She played softball in the Army. First base.

She was 51 when man walked on the moon in 1969.

"There are amazing things that we've done," Ila said.

She owns a computer and a cell phone.

"It's progress," she said.

Most of Ila's family is gone, but two nieces and a nephew are coming to town for her 100th festivities, which will include parties at Imperial Palms and Skycrest.

But first came Wednesday. After the rain delay, Ila, with a little help, made her way to the field. She posed for a photo with Threshers players. Then it was showtime.

Ila stood about 15 feet from home plate. Her ball had some break to it, bouncing twice before being fielded by Clearwater's catcher.
On the way back to her seat, she asked if I knew anyone with Goodyear, the blimp people. The unsinkable Ila St. John sails on. No word on her next scheduled start.

"Is there anything better than a baseball game?" Ila said. "I just tried to do my best."

No mustard, no relish. Just Ila.

Happy birthday, youngster.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

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