Ida Schwerzel: A Century of Memories

By Greg Lindberg

Let’s take a trip back in time. It was the spring of 1916. Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. Just over 100 million people made up the population of the United States. It was nearly one year before the U.S. joined its allies in World War I.

On the final day in May that year, Ida Restaino Schwerzel was born in Astoria on Long Island, New York. She was delivered at home by a mid-wife, who was friends with her mother. She says she was her mother’s “miracle child.”

“I was probably premature, although they didn’t really know about all that at the time,” she says. “From birth, I was on oxygen and medication. They even gave me B12 shots. They did not expect me to live. But now at 100, I feel better than ever. My mother always gave me an extra hug on my birthday and was amazed that I could keep going. If I ever took a vacation, we’d always look for the nearest hospital in case I needed medical attention.”

Schwerzel had four siblings, and her mother raised all five children due to her father’s abusive personality.

“My mother was like the Rock of Gibraltar,” she says. “She could do absolutely anything. But the neighbors around us were very unaccepting of our mother because she was separated from our father. That was frowned upon much more back then.”

Her mother, Amalia, was just 17 years old when she came to the United States from her hometown of Naples, Italy in the early 1900s. Amalia would later sponsor her only sister, Adelina, to become a U.S. citizen.

“In those days, you put yourself on ‘the list’ to come to the U.S. You had to have a sponsor who was often a complete stranger. Many people could not speak English when they moved here.”

Schwerzel’s grandmother had severe asthma, which she believes she inherited from her. She has struggled with breathing problems her entire life.

“My mother put two chairs together and laid a mattress across them. She put all of my medications, paper, and pencils on them so that everything I needed was in one place. I missed a lot of school when I was young. I had to bring a clumsy oxygen tank to school and give it to the school nurse. When I had a breathing attack, the teacher took me to see the nurse. Kids would huff and puff while laughing at me as I had trouble breathing, which goes to show that some kids have always been mean. I attended PS 83 School in Astoria, New York.”

Schwerzel says it was a different world when she was growing up.

“When I was young, life was simple and trusting. The screen door on our house had just a little latch. It was such a different time.”

She has one surviving sister, Gilda Ebel, who is 92. Her eldest sister was Amelia Virga, who was 11 years older than her. She also had two brothers, Mario and Julio.

“I went to Lawrence High School for two years. There was Browns Business School where you could receive training to become a secretary. You had to pay the tuition two months in advance. My mom signed me up to go there for one month, but I wanted to be a seamstress, so I dropped out. My mother could take a rag and make something beautiful, so I really learned these skills and became a seamstress myself.”

The next chapter of her life would bring some big surprises that would impact her forever.

“I went on to work at Lord and Taylor where I made girdles and bras and did lots of alterations. I met so many famous people there. I actually got to shake Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand when she was First Lady. She took the elevator up to our store, and she had several Secret Service men with her. All of the employees were lined up on either side of the aisle. She shook everyone’s hand and had a pleasant word for everyone. When she shook the store manager’s hand, he whispered something to her, and she started laughing hysterically. I was so eager to find out what he said and asked around if anyone knew what he told her, but he said it would always be a secret. I also met Dorothy Lamour, Eleanor Powell, and June Allyson. The store was on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, so all of the big names shopped there.”

She and her husband, Harold, were married for 60 years. The two first met when both worked at Lord and Taylor.

“I was a corsetiere and started working there when I was about 17 or 18,” she recalls. “My future husband was a stock boy. He’d always wait for me at the employee exit. He kept bugging me to go out on a date, so I finally gave in. On our first date, he told me we were going to get married. I thought he was nuts, but we eventually did, and it’s incredible we stayed together for all those years.”

Harold was a year-and-a-half younger than his better half. He served in the U.S. Army for over four years, including stints at the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Normandy, and the Battle at Patton’s Run. These deployments were during World War II.

In 1942, Harold was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Ida took a bus to Columbus, Georgia to meet him there. This is where they would tie the knot.

“I sent a wire to him saying I was on my way,” she recalls. “He bought socks and cigarettes with the little money he had, so I wound up paying for the wedding ring, the hotel, and the Justice of the Peace to marry us at the courthouse. We stayed at the Ralston Hotel in Columbus for $10 a night. My mother was not too happy about all of this since her other children had traditional church weddings.”

She recalls some early forms of technology to which she was exposed.

“When I was younger, I went to the World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. They had an exhibit that showed how overpasses would be built and how they’d work all over our country. They called them ‘highways of the sky,’ and everyone thought it was more like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Also, when one of our neighbors got a TV for the first time, everyone in the neighborhood would go over to his house and crowd around this little box that you could hardly see. That poor man, who was actually very wealthy, wished he had never opened his doors.”

Upon learning they had a child on the way, Schwerzel’s doctor sent a telegram to her husband who was at Fort Sutton so that he would come to New York for Ida’s pregnancy.

“The doctor told my husband to get me out of New York because I wouldn’t be able to deliver my baby due to my health. He even mentioned an abortion. I wound up getting put on strict bed rest for six months and had to eat very lightly. I finally delivered the baby, but his face was so messed up because of how he came out. He also had one weak eye. We were in the hospital for two weeks. He finally started looking better physically. His name was Brian. He went on to serve in the Navy and worked as an airplane mechanic. He died at 59 from a heart attack.”

She also has a daughter, Linda Nicodemus, who is married to Bruce.

“My son-in-law is a prince,” she enthuses of Bruce.

At one point, Schwerzel lived in Belton, Texas right after her son was born and while her husband was stationed at Fort Hood.

“It cost me $10 a week to live in a country house in Texas. The woman who owned it knew I had a baby. She said I could only live there if my baby was quiet. I said he wouldn’t make a sound, but he hollered and cried most of the time. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no use of the refrigerator. I was there for three months. I had to mainly eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had to use evaporated milk with water. I had to use an outhouse, and I had to fill up a pan with water from the outhouse to get any water there. I had to wash my son’s clothes on a table with a galvanized pale. This woman wanted me out and made things so difficult for me.”

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 reside next door to her.

In terms of hobbies, 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 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 also enjoys 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 a simple procedure done 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 PCB. By all accounts, she is the oldest member of all chapters within the Florida Council of the Blind and may have that same designation within the entire American 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 enjoys attending every monthly meeting of the PCB.

“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.”

Asked what has given her longevity, she 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.”

When asked about the secret to her 60-year marriage with Harold, she offers some very sensible advice.

“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. When asked about the unprecedented drama of the 2016 presidential race, she does not hesitate to share her opinion.

“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.

On reaching the century mark in age, Schwerzel jokes that it’s 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. Of course, Harold was also 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!”