by Greg Lindberg
(Editor’s Note: If you missed part 1 of this story, you can find it in the January 2017 issue.)
After Texas, Schwerzel moved back to Long Island where her mother was hosting a full house of young mothers and their young children in the family while their husbands were in the service.
Her mother was a wonderful cook, and one of their neighbors thought she should open up an Italian restaurant. She made lasagna, minestrone, and eggplant parmesan. She even made dough herself. She worked in stores when they sold handmade clothing that they made in-house. She worked in a bridal shop where she made bridal gowns for weddings. She also had a beautiful voice and could sing like no other. There were times she’d have one of her babies on one leg and was sewing something on her other leg. “She was truly an amazing woman.”
Harold was German and was born in New York. After his military service, he had many nightmares. “He would be deep in thought and reliving some of his experiences in the war,” she recalls. “He never wanted to get help because he thought he had to handle all of this by himself. My oldest brother later taught him to be a plumber, which he did for a long time.”
The Schwerzels moved to Florida in July of 1962 after her doctor recommended the climate would be better for her asthma. This is a doctor who had known her since she was a little girl. “Before I left New York, Dr. Johnson hugged me and said, ‘Ida, if you ever need me, have your family call me, and we’ll get you on a plane to New York.’”
She and her family moved to Pasadena in Pinellas County near St. Petersburg. Her daughter was not very thrilled with the decision, as she was about 11 years old at the time.
“When we made it to Florida, I took my daughter to Webb’s City, which was an early version of a shopping plaza on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. The area was known for its green benches where people would sit and talk. We got on a bus that was loaded with gray-haired people. She couldn’t sit and had to stand in the middle of the bus. Then she proceeded to yell out, ‘Mom, you brought me to Florida where old people come to die!’ I was so embarrassed, but everyone started cracking up on the bus.”
Her daughter did enjoy going to the beach, though. She wound up working for Verizon and retired in 2016 at age 65.
The Schwerzels lived in Pasadena for five years. They spotted a small sign for another house while driving on Bayshore Drive. “We looked at it since it was right on the water. We paid $17,000 for that house and lived there for 21 years. It’s probably worth close to a half-million dollars now.”
She recalls that her mother and grandmother had their doubts that Ida was actually residing in the Sunshine State after spending so many years of her life in New York. “My mom and grandma never believed I had moved to Florida. They finally took a train to St. Petersburg, and when they showed up on our doorstep, they couldn’t believe it was true.”
The couple then moved to Clearwater around 1990 and moved into their current home nearby in 1994. A sign in front of the home says, “Welcome to the Schwerzels … established 1994.” Her daughter and son-in-law live next door.
Schwerzel likes spending time outdoors. “I love gardening and doing things outside. At 95, I was still getting on the roof to clean the leaves off. Even now, I still go out and check up on the plants. I have to make sure they look healthy.”
She also enjoys watching Law & Order, America’s Got Talent, Bay News 9, and The Weather Channel. She admits to never owning a cell phone and never using a computer. She loves going to Pinecrest Community Center, a senior living community near her home in Clearwater. “I’ve been going there for several years to listen to a man named Bill Clark play the piano. I also know some of the people who live there. About three years ago, I was approached by a woman who asked me, ‘Do you live here?’ I told her I did not, and she said I would not be able to come anymore. So, I wrote a letter to Bill explaining what happened. Would you believe he made up a special card for me that says, ‘Ida Schwerzel is allowed to be here.’”
She had to give up driving around age 87. She had surgery to remove the cataract in her left eye, but something went wrong, and she wound up going blind in that eye. She also has macular degeneration in her right eye. “I had to give up my license because I knew it just wasn’t safe for me to be driving,” she admits. “Giving that up felt like losing my arm, but I just couldn’t handle it.”
Schwerzel joined the Pinellas Council of the Blind around age 88. She had been attending the Watson Center to receive vision rehabilitation, which is now called the Lighthouse of Pinellas. She took several classes, including creative writing and yoga. Someone there referred her to the Pinellas chapter. By all accounts, she is the oldest member of all chapters within the Florida Council of the Blind.
Schwerzel has a white cane but prefers to use her walker for balance support. She attempted to learn braille, but when she got frustrated with not being able to feel all of the marks, she told her doctor, “‘This stinks.’ After that, he told me I didn’t need to fool with it anymore. Fortunately, I get along pretty well with the vision in my right eye. I have a talking clock in my house.”
She attends every monthly meeting of the Pinellas chapter. “I have made several friends in the Pinellas Council of the Blind,” she says. “Lucille Gradel and Eugene Batke are two of my favorite people.”
What’s the key to longevity? Schwerzel says it’s all about mindset. “There is no secret to living a long life. To me, attitude means everything. You can survive a lot of things. As humans, we are all stronger than we think we are. Once you’re put to the test, you realize this, but you won’t understand this until you’re tested.”
Along with her daughter and son-in-law next to her, she also has neighbors who’ve been extremely helpful to her. “I am surrounded by so many people who are wonderful and supportive,” she glows.
Her husband, Harold, died of prostate cancer at about 85. “His doctor took each of our hands and gave us the news. He was in tears, and so were we. My husband only had common colds and a tonsillectomy in his lifetime, but this cancer came on strong.”
What’s the secret to staying married for 60 years? “You have to love each other and be tolerant,” she says. “There are times you might want to kill your spouse for something they said or did, but love always wins. Never go to sleep angry with each other. Harold and I would always kiss, say good night, and then laugh.”
Thanks to her lifelong consumption of much more oxygen than the average person, she thinks oxygen has been a miracle treatment for her. “People should take some oxygen every few months. I think oxygen can truly do wonders for everyone’s health. I think it’s why I am still here today.”
Schwerzel has lived through 17 presidents in her lifetime. She gave her opinion about the unprecedented drama of the 2016 presidential race. “I think Donald Trump will make it. He’s just so different, and he sure has the mouthpiece.”
She has five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. “It’s a lot to keep track of,” she says with a laugh.
Schwerzel jokes that reaching the century mark is no big deal. “It’s another year, another number,” she says with a smile. “I hate the word ‘old.’ I like the word ‘older’ better.”
Like all centenarians, she received a card from the White House that was signed by both Barack and Michelle Obama. “They probably send out thousands of these cards every year now,” she says.
Her mother lived to 85 years old and passed away from throat cancer. She had a nephew who died of throat cancer, a brother who died of tongue cancer, a sister with breast cancer, and a cousin with pancreatic cancer. Harold was in the same group. “I told everyone not to bring me any gifts for my 100th birthday. Instead, I want everyone to make a donation to either cancer research or Hospice.”
Her family threw a big party for her with nearly 40 family members in attendance, many of whom flew in from all over the country.
She sums up her past, present, and future with one quote that truly defines her. “I am a ball of fire, and I have no plans to let that ball stop rolling!”