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96-year-old Florida mayor may be nation's oldest

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

OCEAN BREEZE PARK, Fla. -- In a community where everyone is over 55, it's fitting that Mayor Dorothy Geeben's age has made her a celebrity of sorts.

At 96, Geeben may be the nation's oldest mayor. She's so well-liked in her the retirement community of nearly 1,000 that no one is opposing her re-election this week, and her next two-year term will last through the end of 2006, or nine months past her 98th birthday.

No records officially confirm the distinction, but the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities have no reports of anyone older, either.

The closest might be a 92-year-old mayor in Pittsburg, Texas, said Sherry Appel, a spokeswoman for the NLC, which found at least 26 elected officials who are 85 or older.

In March, NBC's "Today" helped celebrate Geeben's 96th birthday. Jay Leno invited her to share her political secrets with his audience, too, though she turned the "Tonight" show down because she didn't want to travel.

"We can't vote her out because she's so well known," jokes Camden Griffin, the editor of Ocean Breeze Park's newsletter.

Geeben said the secret to her longevity and popularity is a full schedule that keeps her moving.

"I have a good time. I'm on the go a lot. I guess that's half the battle," she said.

Geeben moved to Ocean Breeze Park more than a half-century ago with her first husband after they heard about the town on a television program.

Geeben now uses a walker to get around, but says she's moving just as fast as she was when she was 80, a time she describes as "my younger years."

The quaint collection of mobile homes that makes up Ocean Breeze Park sits on 85 acres of prime real estate, about 100 miles north of Miami. Harry Hoke bought and developed the land in 1938, eventually incorporating the community into a town.

Hoke was elected the town's first mayor, and the title was eventually passed onto his daughter-in-law, Ruth Hoke, who held the post for 12 years. When she died in 2001, Geeben took charge after already serving as the town council's president for 31 years.

Residents recently had to endure their worst crisis in decades. Back-to-back hurricanes took direct aim at the mobile home community. At least a dozen homes in the town were destroyed; many sustained major damage.

"Some have gone, and some have their places up for sale. But as a rule, everybody loves Florida, and they love it here," Geeben said.

She attends church, where she plays the organ every Sunday, drives to weekly bingo outings and regular appointments at the hair salon. She manages her own finances the same way she learned in the 1920s, using a typewriter and an adding machine.

Her days are usually so busy that she has no time for the kitchen, except when the town's Saturday evening potluck requires her rice pudding. Then, she uses the microwave.

"I don't cook much but I manage to eat all the time," said Geeben, who barely reaches 5 feet tall.

She'd much rather talk family than politics, particularly if it involves her great-great grandson or the family reunion last year.

She also believes in staying quiet at town meetings.

"It's the best way to keep the peace," she said.


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