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With wit, wisdom, she reaches 95th year

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 11, 2001

"Every morning I wake up, I'm surprised ..."

I wait for Leona Baker Everitt to finish her sentence.

She doesn't. She already has.

It's another one of those witticisms Mrs. Everitt frequently sneaks into her conversation. At 95, she is aware of her mortality, but not too concerned about it. She is, however, prepared for it. (All her relatives will have to do is "come to the funeral -- if they want to," she says).

But spend a few minutes with Mrs. Everitt and it quickly becomes obvious that her lack of concern for longevity has little to do with the arrangements she has made, but much to do with the life she is living.

"It's been a great, great life," she said recently in her Clearwater home, where the holiday season was making it hard for her to remain seated for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

She has just finished showing off her motorized scooter, poised just behind her garage door like a horse in the starting chute. It sports a colorful canopy fashioned by her daughter and decorated with gold-colored musical notes -- a tribute to her years as a concert pianist and music educator -- and a top speed of 5 mph.

She walks, briskly, without the aid of a cane or walker, but says her legs give out on her after awhile. She went to doctors to find the reason, but says they couldn't find anything wrong with her. Watching her scamper around her home, their finding is understandable. She moves in verbs usually reserved for children. Ask for her phone number and she has zipped into the kitchen and brought you a phone before you realize she misunderstood the request.

Still, she quips, "My mind says I'm 25, but my body refuses to listen."

Since she is no longer allowed to drive, the scooter is her freedom. She boasts, with a twinkle at the decadence of it, that she can go to the grocery store and do all of her shopping without standing up once.

With the meticulous Japanese art of origami as a hobby, she folds old Christmas cards into boxes about the size of the ones rings come in. Not content with just describing it, she hops up from her chair and breezes into another room. She emerges seconds later and presents me with one. The folds are crisp and even and hold onto one another with virtually invisible precision. The lid lifts and closes with ease. I didn't ask what I should put in it.

It is not work you would expect 95-year-old fingers to produce. But then, Mrs. Everitt changes a lot of expectations.

Armed only with her address, I had expected my drive in search of her to end at a nursing home. Instead, it ends at a house on a busy street where a red-haired woman is decorating a mailbox with holiday greetings.

I expect that woman to be Mrs. Everitt's caretaker. This couldn't be a 95-year-old woman, I tell myself.

Leaning on her mailbox, she assures me she is Mrs. Everitt, the woman who had written a letter in response to a column I wrote about aging.

"I get the paper every day," she says. "I don't read about the terrorism. That's been going on since the beginning of time. I don't read opinions; everybody has one. I go straight to the comics. It's a crazy world, but it comes down to basics: Love thy neighbor."

She came to Florida from New Jersey in 1964 and moved to Clearwater 20 years ago. For 18 of those years, she has taught English in her home primarily to people for whom it is a second language. She is also a mentor at a local private school.

All this follows a career in music, which she set aside to raise her children. "I've seen so many things change in my lifetime, and it's mostly with the children," she says. "It started after the second World War when women started working and decided it was more important than being home with their children."

People who heard her play piano would often ask why she didn't get back into it professionally. Her answer was usually short: "I want to raise my children with my ideas, right or wrong, and that's the way it is."

She says there was irreplaceable value in the routines families traditionally practiced. Dinner time in her household was sacred. She instructed her children that their friends should not call during that designated hour, and each of them was expected to be there. That was family time, she said. That's when her husband would tell about his travels and other family members would talk about their days.

Now? "Do they say grace? No. They sit down in front of the television. Women are too tired to take their children to church."

The subject brings out her passion. "All these things you look at are just things. The thing that's important are your children. God didn't tell you to go out and buy that new car, or that big house. But he gave you children."

She says we need to get back to the basics, education and God.

"God will give you peace and comfort," she says. "I just wake up in the morning and ask God what he wants me to do, and I try to do it. Oh, but I wish I could do more."

With a wave of her hand, Mrs. Everitt dismisses the cosmetic changes the body undergoes as it ages. "You don't worry about that stuff," she says.

She has also stopped worrying so much about the actions of others, stopped being so quick to judge, she says. "When I was younger, I used to say," her voice shifts to feigned indignation. "Hmmpf, I wonder why he did that. That was wrong; what did he do that for?"' Her voice returns to normal pitch. "Now I say, "Wonder if I would have done the same thing if I were in his position."'

She said life has taught her the wisdom of withholding judgment until you have walked a mile in that person's shoes.

In her letterto me, Mrs. Everitt lamented that her age has left her without a male companion, after a life spent with "two of the most wonderful husbands God ever made."

She wrote: "I want someone in their 70s. Now what man in his 70s would want a 95-year-young gal?"

A better question, however, would be what man in his 70s could keep up with her?

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