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By Tampa man's count, he's 120 years old

Juan Ramos is so old he called airplanes "ships with wings" when she was growing up, granddaughter Maria Mora recalls.

By JOE HUMPHREY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


TAMPA -- If the passport is right, Juan Ramos turns 120 today.

That easily would make him the oldest man on Earth, a record now officially held by an Oklahoma man who is only 110.

But Guinness World Records, famous for its book, television show and stringent qualifications, does not recognize Ramos because there is no clear way to prove he was actually born in 1880.

A Cuban passport, issued before Ramos moved to the United States in 1994, shows Ramos' date of birth as June 24, 1880. Not acceptable for Guinness, but good enough for the Tampa Housing Authority.

While Ramos might not be the oldest man in the world, it's clear he is the senior tenant at the J.L. Young Apartments on N Florida Avenue. Friday, residents gathered to celebrate Ramos and, perhaps, 12 decades of life.

"Some think he is, some think he's not," said 80-year-old apartment resident Robert Prior.

The facts didn't figure into Friday's celebration, which featured Latin music, a large cake and a white-haired man just happy to be alive on the eve of his birthday.

"The secret to good health is to abstain from alcohol and smoking cigarettes," Ramos said through an interpreter.

Ramos speaks only Spanish and came to Tampa six years ago with his granddaughter, Maria Mora. They live in a one-bedroom apartment, and she serves as his live-in aide.

Ramos has said he was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Cuba when he was 8. During his party Friday, he said he worked as a farmer for much of his life.

"When we produced sugar cane, we would hide in the sugar cane fields and eat it," he said.

Mora said while she was growing up, her grandfather would talk about airplanes as "ships with wings."

In 1994, Ramos finally rode on one of those so-called ships, when he took a plane to the United States.

At Friday's party, Mora and another woman helped Ramos into the room, supporting him as he shuffled toward a tall wicker chair. Ramos sat there throughout the afternoon event, occasionally extending his arms and bursting out in song. He wore a stiff white dress shirt, which matched almost perfectly the color of his thick hair.

He was greeted with proclamations and letters from Sen. Bob Graham, Gov. Jeb Bush and Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. From a black case presented on behalf of Greco emerged la llave de la ciudad, the key to the city.

After the letters were read and today was deemed Juan Ramos Day by the housing authority, Ramos listened as the crowd sang "Happy Celebration. The song was substituted because Ramos, a Jehovah's Witness, does not celebrate birthdays.

He then thanked 50-plus people at the party. "I feel like a young child again."

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