Florence Ellenberger has moved from Sun Towers at Sun City Center to Sun Terrace, a skilled nursing facility at the same complex. The move was possible because she was able to tap the VA benefits of her late husband, a WWI vet. JIM REED/STAFF
For her 103rd Independence Day, Florence Ellenberger will celebrate one of her favorite holidays like she always has.
She will wake up, put on red-white-and-blue clothing and wave an American flag.
"I am very patriotic," says Ellenberger, born on Memorial Day in 1910. "I love this country, and I love our flag."
The biggest difference from last year is that Ellenberger has moved from Sun Towers, an independent living facility in Sun City Center, to Sun Terrace, a skilled nursing facility in the same complex.
It was a journey of just 600 feet, but making it happen, which required more money than she could afford with her Social Security benefits, was a combination of her great record-keeping, the help of her family and the dogged determination of the Hillsborough County Veterans Affairs agency and a benefits manager from the Veterans Benefits Administration. Then there are her amazing genes. And luck.
Ellenberger is the widow of a World War I veteran, one of about 2,000 still alive. She is the oldest person in Hillsborough County, and one of the oldest in the country, ever to receive VA benefits, which paid for her move.
At a time when the VA has been under fire for the backlog of veterans waiting for benefits, and with widows' claims taking between a year and 14 months, all of those factors combined to produce something never seen before.
"We got it done in the record time of two days," says Ivo Kisic, a veterans service officer for Hillsborough County whose persistence and contacts with the Veterans Benefits Administration helped get Ellenberger $1,113 a month in benefits, the maximum available.
Forreste Ellenberger was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during WWI and after the war became a prominent banker in upstate New York. By the 1970s, his first wife had died and he became enamored by a spitfire of a woman who volunteered with organizations such as the Columbia Memorial Hospital, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Women's Auxiliary of the Mellenville Volunteer Fire Co.
At the time the woman was known as Florence Wilcox, having taken on the name of Mike Wilcox, her second husband who had recently died.
"He liked what I was doing, and I liked what he was doing, and we got married," Ellenberger says.
After a honeymoon that took her to Penn State, her husband's alma mater where she met bandleader Fred Waring and learned to play golf, Ellenberger settled into a new life with her third husband. They eventually moved to Sun City Center, and in 1988 he died at the age of 90.
A widow for the third time, Ellenberger says she persevered, as she always did, by continuing to stay active.
An ordained deacon at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Sun City Center, she sings in the church choir. She played golf as often as possible up until a few years ago and only recently gave up driving. She still has a valid license.
Ellenberger credits "my love of life" as one reason she has lived into a second century.
"I don't have time to feel sorry for myself," says Ellenberger, sitting under a shade tree in the Sun Terrace courtyard.
It was that attitude that helped her get through the tragedy of her first marriage, she says.
"My first husband committed suicide in 1970," she says, drawing her index finger along her neck. She could have caved in at that point, but Ellenberger says she kept her husband's little grocery store going as long as she could.
Ellenberger is a tiny dynamo who zips along the hallways of the nursing home in her manual wheelchair unassisted. Her bright smile and warm energy are contagious.
But at 103, she needs more care, especially after what she said was a stroke she suffered last year.
Back in March, Louise Miller, who married Ellenberger's son Charles, saw that her mother-in-law's health was faltering. Miller, who handles Ellenberger's financial affairs, figured that because Ellenberger was the wife of a veteran, she would be entitled to benefits that would help her move into a more intensive - and costly - living facility.
The task was daunting.
"Because her husband was a WWI veteran, it was tricky getting his discharge papers," says Miller, 71, who sells real estate.
In March, Miller and her son, Charles Jr., flew down to Florida to go through Ellenberger's records in an effort to see whether they had enough to file a claim.
"Her husband was a pretty good record-keeper," Miller says. "Even though he passed away several years ago, she still had the birth, marriage and death records of all three of her husbands. We got it all together and, God bless Mr. Kisic, he was very helpful."
Kisic, the Hillsborough veterans service officer, says that armed with the materials Miller was able to gather, he reached out to a close contact, Darrell Mills, an assistant pension management center manager at the Veterans Benefits Administration processing office in Philadelphia.
Because of Ellenberger's age, her status as a widow of a WWI veteran, her health and financial situation, Ellenberger was considered to be a special case, Kisic says.
"With the VA under the gun for the backlog, and rightfully so, this highlights the special relation between the VA and the county veterans services office," says Frank Strom, director of Hillsborough Veterans Affairs.
Strom says that his agency works with about 30,000 veterans, survivors and dependents in the county, providing services ranging from helping obtain compensation benefits to finding income-based housing and health care.
Though Strom is happy that his office was able to help Ellenberger, he cautions that the rapid results achieved with her are the exception.
"I am pretty sure she is the only WWI widow left in the county," he says.