At 99, Clearwater woman is an energetic inspiration

Meet Roy Peter Clark’s new soul mate, a fervent Tampa Bay Rays fan and a ray of light.
Nell Goodrich, 99, shows off her new Rays cap, a birthday gift from the author.
Nell Goodrich, 99, shows off her new Rays cap, a birthday gift from the author. [ ROY PETER CLARK | Roy Peter Clark ]
Published March 23

As I hit my 75th birthday this month (no presents, please), I have been looking for role models for how I might spend my final quarter century. I found one in Nell Goodrich.

We got a tip that Nell was about to celebrate her 99th birthday. Her friend, Cindy Blattenberger, happens to be 30. Cindy described Nell as a spirited woman, full of wisdom and life, a person whose story could inspire others. Cindy called her “an angel.”

Little did I know I was about to meet my soul mate.

Who is this woman, Nell Goodrich, and why have I become so taken with her?

In a phone call she told me that she has lived in Florida most of her life. I told her I was a native New Yorker. “I hope you are not a Yankee fan,” she said.

Nell explained that she roots for the Rays. She was bummed out that her team had just dumped her favorite player, Kevin Kiermaier. She loved the way KK climbed the wall in centerfield to make a great catch, or threw out runners at home with a cannon for an arm. Nell agreed with female fans who admire her guy for his good looks.

Wow, I thought. A real fan. This is my kind of woman. She admitted that she once got so frustrated at her team’s poor performance that she yelled at the television screen. (Hey, I do that!) She shouted loud enough that neighbors rushed over thinking that Nell was having a heart attack.

A lively soul in a healthy body

I had to meet Nell in person and found myself in front of the tidy house in Clearwater where she has lived for 61 years. My first thought when I looked at her beautifully manicured front yard: “This lady really loves butterflies.” I lost count of the yard art devoted to the beauty of the butterfly, including a mailbox with fluttery images all over. The meaning of this would be revealed later.

Nell has outlived two husbands. Both died of cancer. But before I share her life story, I want to tell you a few things about the quality of her life and health in this, her hundredth year.

She takes no prescription medications, only vitamin supplements, Tylenol for arthritis and something to ease a pollen allergy.

The only night she spent in the hospital was for the birth of her son.

She can get out of her easy chair to a standing position in only two rocks. (It may take me three.)

She exercises in her house with light weights and does water aerobics at the local Y.

She eats a hearty breakfast and avoids junk foods.

Looking for a role model of vigorous age, Roy Peter Clark finds Nell Goodrich, and declares her his soul mate.
Looking for a role model of vigorous age, Roy Peter Clark finds Nell Goodrich, and declares her his soul mate. [ ROY PETER CLARK | Roy Peter Clark ]

Every night she enjoys half a glass of wine. “It takes five nights to finish a bottle of wine.” She was emphatic about her favorite: cabernet sauvignon. She has an impressive collection in a handsome wine rack. She loves expensive brands, but won’t purchase them herself. She’s too thrifty. But she will accept them as birthday gifts.

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She enjoys music, especially country and gospel. She exercises her mind by solving word puzzles in the newspaper. On the day of my visit, she wore a pair of New Balance shoes, white capris, a red T-shirt that read “Looking FINE at 99!” She added the Rays cap I brought as a birthday present.

Nell gets around nicely with a small walker and moves through her house at a steady pace into an amazing backyard. The yard turns out to be an elaborate butterfly garden, where she has planted bushes and flowers that butterflies favor, and before you can say “mariposa” or “papillon,” we find ourselves surrounded by graceful winged creatures decorated in orange, black, yellow and gold.

Poor as dirt

From her birth in Madison County near the Georgia border in 1924, Nell has had a deep connection to the Florida soil. As one of five children in a family she describes as “dirt poor,” Nell picked cotton and can still (nine decades later) offer soliloquies on the evils of the boll weevil.

Her father died at the age of 36, when Nell was only 4 years old. Her mother moved the five children to wherever they could find a shack to live in. They barely survived the ravages of the Depression. “We were starving,” she said.

Still, she can recall more hopeful moments. In spite of the deep racism in the culture, her family and a Black family down the road shared food — collard greens and roast pig — so both could enjoy a feast.

When the family moved to Polk City, the money crop turned from cotton to strawberries. Nell claims that the luscious fruits back then were smaller, but more redolent and delicious. Today’s strawberries look artificially large by comparison.

She attended a “strawberry school,” an institution I had never heard of. Rural schools shifted their calendars to suit the picking season. The usual school let kids out in the summer months, but strawberry season was January, February and March. The kids had those months “off” from their studies to work the fields, and attended classes from April to December.

“I think children should be taught more about the history of Florida,” says one woman who lived it.

Butterflies flutter by

As an adult, Nell worked as a bookkeeper in a health food store, but decided to take classes in floral arranging, realizing that horticulture and propagating plants were her first love. She would become an active member of the Florida Wildlife Federation. She learned the habits of butterflies and turned butterfly gardening into her enduring passion.

On the wall in her house there is a framed photo collage with images from her backyard. Nine photos capture the stages of development of a butterfly. There it is in all its glory, a process so magnificent it earns a Greek mythological name: metamorphosis. In the first image, Nell’s fingers point to where eggs on a leaf have turned to the larva or caterpillar. Then comes the chrysalis, and then, on Nell’s fingers emerges a magnificent butterfly, velvet black in color, with white and blue spots decorating the edges of its wings. She tells me it’s an Eastern Black Swallowtail.

Countless images of butterflies decorate Nell’s house and yard. These photos show the metamorphosis of a butterfly from her yard and in her own hands.
Countless images of butterflies decorate Nell’s house and yard. These photos show the metamorphosis of a butterfly from her yard and in her own hands. [ Roy Peter Clark ]

Nell is moved by the thought of it: “When a new butterfly sits on your hand — how can anyone doubt there is a God?” She is tuned into something profound, a long history of Christian iconography where the glorious butterfly emerging from its apparent shroud is seen as an image of the resurrection.

Nell modestly claims to be “computer illiterate.” But think of all the things she has seen in her century of life. Is there something she would still like to experience?

I pose a question: What if Kevin Kiermaier showed up at her doorstep, with those dreamy eyes and those sleek muscles?

Nell’s face lights up, her eyes as wide as they could be. She draws out her words and speaks in capital letters: “I THINK I WOULD JUST DIE!!!”

But not any time soon, I bet.