Keys weather, and moderation, keep 104-year-old Onelio Gonzalez young
He had Ernest Hemingway for a neighbor, bought a Model T car with a New Deal job and served in the Pacific during World War II – but doesn’t look a day over 90.
Onelio Anthony Gonzalez is one of the oldest living Conchs — an endearment reserved only for people born in Key West — and, as he turned 104 years old, he reflected on his life and all the sweeping changes he has seen in the place he has called home for nearly his entire life.
"People told me that I don't look my age, you know," Gonzalez said, laughing softly. "They say, 'You look like you're 80 or 90, something like that.' But not 104."
He has watched Key West — once a barely-known dot in the ocean — morph from a fishing village into a Navy town, then into a haven for artists and real world dropouts until it became the famous high-priced vacation destination that draws a couple million tourists a year.
"It was dead until the Navy came and gave it a life," Gonzalez, a retired carpenter and father of two, said. "And then they brought their families and the town got better and better."
When his grandfather landed in Key West, he bought two houses by the beach. "For $75," Gonzalez said, laughing. "What do you think about that?"
But while the affordability crisis is hurting modern day Key West as much as anywhere else, he doesn’t long for the old days. The world is "better today," Gonzalez says, without hesitation. "We used to eat one meal a day," he said. "That was during the Depression."
On a recent afternoon, while sitting outside Palm Vista Nursing and Rehabilitation on Stock Island, where he has been since he suffered a broken leg more than a year ago, Gonzalez took note of the tropical balmy and breezy weather that's the norm in Key West.
"The weather don't make you age," he said. "It's never snowed up here."
"He looks wonderful," Angie Garcia, who is married to one of Gonzalez's nephews, said while visiting him for his birthday. "And happy. His mind is clear. He remembers everything."
Gonzalez's wish for his big day: eating jumbo shrimp. And for his celebration on April 29 he got five pounds of Key West pinks — fresh from local shrimpers — as well as other gifts from locals who learned that he had hit another milestone.
Marissa Redding, a therapist and director of rehab at Palm Vista, joked that when she ordered his cake, three different Publix employees asked her to confirm the year before frosting the top. "They said, 'Did you mean to put 1-4? 'I said, 'No, 1-zero-4,'" she recounted, laughing.
‘I’ve been on the good side’
Gonzalez doesn't offer dramatic tales. Instead, he speaks enthusiastically about everyday experiences that read like a historical record of life in Key West over the last century.
He grew up on Whitehead Street, where one of his family's neighbors was legendary author Ernest Hemingway — whose walled mansion is a popular tourist attraction.
But when Gonzalez was a boy, the larger-than-life celebrity novelist was just a man he'd see walking the neighborhood.
"I used to see him," Gonzalez said. "He'd get up and he'd go to town, but he'd go through Whitehead Street. He didn't go down Duval. Too many people wanting his autograph."
He recalls splashing out on a black Ford Model T car when he was a teenager. "Didn't have a starter," Gonzalez recalls. "Mine had a crank. I drove it. I had a car and another kid didn't because he wasn't working the hard way."
Gonzalez earned the money through a youth program from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a sweeping series of projects and policies that put millions of Americans back to work as the nation was mired in poverty. It sent him from Key West to Ocala, Florida, where Gonzalez said he cut pine trees — for a dollar a day.
Today the only land transportation in and out of the island is through the stunning overseas highway.
But Gonzalez not only remembers catching the train to Miami on the 113-mile Overseas Railroad, which was shut in 1935; he was so young, he ended up being grounded by his dad for an impromptu trip.
He also recalls driving on the famously narrow Old Seven Mile Bridge, which is now a recreation area with a pedestrian walkway.
"If a fella was coming this way and another the other way, they had to kind of like stop because they only had a little bit between one and another car," Gonzalez explained. "Then after, then you could speed up, you know. You had to almost stop and go by one another."
Gonzalez proudly wears a baseball cap declaring that he's a World War II veteran. At age 26, he was in the Philippines with a platoon handling artillery.
He has a tight-knit family surrounding him in Key West, including his daughter Darlene Gonzalez and a host of grand nephews and nieces.
But he's lost loved ones on his long journey.
He buried his wife of 48 years, Elvira Garcia Gonzalez. Of three marriages, the one that spanned decades causes him to get quiet for a few moments. "It was the best I ever had," he said of the marriage. He also outlived his son, Joseph Gonzalez.
Even as an elderly person, the COVID-19 pandemic didn't alarm him."I felt that I was strong enough that I was going to make it to come out," he said. "I didn't get sick. I didn't think much about it."
His secret to a long, healthy life seems to be moderation. "I've never been a drunkard, I've never been a dope addict," Gonzalez said. He also stopped smoking tobacco in his early 20s. "They said it was bad, so I quit," he said.
"I've been on the good side, and I guess that's the way."