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Birthday plans: lots of stairs

Tampa / St. Petersburg's oldest living ex-mayor will cross the bay for a fundraiser.

By Stephanie Hayes, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008


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Don Jones is a walking record book.

At 81, he's St. Petersburg's oldest living former mayor. In 1967, he became the youngest mayor ever elected in the city.

In December, Jones competed in "Climb St. Pete," a 28-floor stair climb fundraiser for the American Lung Association.

He set another record: He came in last.

"It took me longer than anyone else who did the climb that day," he said, laughing over black coffee recently.

But no matter. Jones isn't interested in being the fastest or the best. He's interested in finishing what he starts. In staying busy. In staying healthy.

On Saturday - his 82nd birthday - he'll try to climb 42 floors of the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa for the lung association's "Climb Tampa" event.

He has been practicing. He regularly climbs 18 flights in his Point Brittany condo building. At least twice a week, he goes to the Therapy and Sports Center in St. Petersburg, where he weight trains and uses the stair machine - always with his nose in a book.

"I can just stand up there and go bump, bump, bump," he said. "I'm proactive. I'm a multitasker. I want to have a lot of things on my plate."

Jones, who has three grown children with his wife, Mary, has a major smile, a glint in his eye and the energy of a teenager. He's retired but starts his days early to squeeze in all he wants to do.

The self-described "problem child" was born in New York. In his junior year of high school, his family shipped him to a prep school, and during World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces. He moved to St. Petersburg in 1956, where he started an insurance agency from nothing.

"I had to prove something to myself," he said of starting his own business.

Jones became a City Council member and vice mayor before becoming mayor of the city. His public office tenure came at a time of racial strife in the city, an era in which he was proud to serve, he said.

In the 1970s, he became chairman of the Pinellas County Commission. He left after four years to focus on his insurance business and get away from partisan politics.

Jones wasn't always so healthy. In 1973, he developed a blockage in his heart. He could barely walk around the parking lot of his condominium without losing his breath, he said.

"I had a doctor that said, 'You're going to exercise your fool head off.' "

So Jones lost weight and changed his habits. He started eschewing elevators in favor of stairs.

He has lost friends to lung disease. As he ages, he sees more and more friends slipping away. With each sponsorship he gets for the "Climb Tampa" event, he's raising money for the American Lung Association.

He has collected $3,300 in sponsorships, he said. One of his granddaughters sent a check, along with a quote from French author George Sand: "It is a mistake to regard age as a downhill grade toward dissolution. The reverse is true. As one grows older, one climbs with surprising strides."

Another granddaughter sent along a simpler sentiment:

"Kick butt."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 727 893-8857.

IF YOU GO

'Climb Tampa'

Registration for the American Lung Association's "Climb Tampa" event starts at 7 a.m. Saturday outside the Bank of America building, 101 E Kennedy Blvd. Climbing starts at 8 a.m. The participation fee is $50, which includes a T-shirt, gift bag and brunch. Visit stairclimbtampabay.com or call (727) 347-6133.

[Last modified February 21, 2008, 20:08:54]


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