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Publix throws party for centenarian

The store's employees celebrate the birthday of a 31-year shopper who also happens to be a nice guy.

By BETSY BOLGER-PAULET

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


LARGO -- Shoppers at the Publix at Indian Rocks Shopping Center on Friday morning found it difficult to push their carts past the news cameras, balloons, streamers and revelers.

Business paused as customers and employees celebrated the 100th birthday of a faithful shopper of 31 years, "Uncle" Herman Hilbinger.

As he does every Friday morning, Hilbinger and other residents of Oak Manor got off the assisted living facility's bus to go shopping.

Wearing sunglasses and a dapper burgundy sports jacket, Hilbinger walked through the store entrance, leaning on his cane. He was greeted by his only child, daughter Elizabeth Bruce, her husband, Richard, and their daughter, Theresa, who were among the throngs gathered in the entry waiting for his arrival.

They chatted, sang Happy Birthday and laughed. And it won't be his only birthday celebration.

Hilbinger plans to rest on his actual birthday today. But Sunday morning he will be off to church for a big fish fry in his honor.

Why fried fish?

"Because that's my favorite thing to eat," the centenarian said, laughing. When asked by a television reporter how he managed to live so long, he quipped: "Well, I eat fatty meat and plenty of fried food. Hasn't hurt me yet."

John Cook, a manager of the Clearwater Phillies, presented him with a red jersey bearing the name "Herman" and the number 100 on the back, along with a new baseball cap.

The idea for the party came from Wilke Melbe, who came out of retirement to bag groceries at Publix a year ago on the advice of a doctor alarmed at Melbe's 250-pound weight.

Melbe, now down to 165 pounds, said working at Publix gave him another bonus: "I got to know Herman."

When Melbe proposed the party, the store's employees immediately agreed.

"Herman is just so polite. A real gentleman. He treats all the personnel graciously," said cashier Helen St. Clair, who created the giant birthday card, which was signed by 150 employees. "Not all the shoppers we serve are so nice."

Cathy Gignac, who has been with the store for 23 years, added: "We all love Uncle Herman. He's so sweet. I won't mind living a long time if I can be like that."

Store manager Luc Wogaman presented a huge birthday cake made in the store's bakery that featured realistic, edible photo decorations made with colored sugar "ink."

The photographs included a centerpiece portrait taken last Christmas and six snapshots gleaned from family albums.

There was a picture of his first Model-T. Another shows him beaming over a string of bass he caught in a Maryland lake. There was even a shot of him with a mule, which he remembers fondly.

"I never had to scold that mule. I would just whisper in her ear and she would do what I asked," Hilbinger remembered. "And when that old horse died, the mule cried. Really, she cried!"

Born June 24, 1900, in Baltimore County to German immigrants, he learned about hard work growing up on a produce farm as the youngest of five children. At 15, he took a job as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Later he worked as a locomotive inspector. During World War II he was an instrument maker for a gun factory in Washington, D.C.

He married Hilda Stafford in 1934. Elizabeth was born seven years later. The couple soon purchased a farm in Maryland.

In 1958, he and his wife joined the local Anne Arundel County school system. He worked as chief custodian and she was cafeteria manager.

Hilbinger and his wife retired here. His daughter and her family joined him on the Suncoast in 1973. Mrs. Hilbinger was 94 when she died in 1996.

Hilbinger maintains that hard work is what kept him young and healthy. He smoked cigars until he was 85.

His daughter said his spiritual life has always been important. At Oak Manor, she said, he "makes rounds ministering to the shut-ins and he brings them pamphlets and material from church."

For more than 20 years, he was an usher at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Largo, which he and his wife joined shortly after moving here. When his eyesight began to fail, being an usher became difficult, so he took on a new job. He is the greeter at the church door.

"Every Sunday morning, I get to open the door for all the old people," Hilbinger said.

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