Miami cemetery historian Mona G. Ball dies

For Mona E. Gilbert Ball, each visit to Miami’s old city cemetery — of which she became historian — was a family reunion. Thirty-two of her relatives rest there.

On Saturday, she’ll join them permanently, following funeral services in North Miami. A pre-placed headstone awaits in the Gilbert family plot.

Ball, of Miami Shores, descended from Miami pioneers Bertha A. Kitchell and Morgan Albert Gilbert. She was born at home in Miami on Feb. 22, 1921, the 11th of 12 children.

When she died on Monday at an Aventura hospice after suffering a stroke, Ball was 92. She belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy — and was one of two white women on the African-American Committee of the old Dade Heritage Trust.

She was a lifelong Republican, “but very liberal and nonjudgmental,’’ said her friend Penny Lambeth, a cemetery preservationist.

“Mona’s keen memory of early Miami is outstanding,’’ Lambeth said in an introductory note about her friend two years ago. “Mona’s mother was a companion to [pioneer] Isabella Peacock; she remembers her mother talking about Julia Tuttle. Mona’s mother and/or her aunt, Freddie Aiken, belonged to the Housekeepers Club,’’ founded in 1891, later the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove.

“Mona’s grandfather had a steamboat company in the middle of the state and brought Henry Flagler to Miami for the first time,’’ Lambeth reported. “Flagler ended up buying the steamboat, The Della, named for Mona’s aunt.’’

When Morgan Gilbert courted Bertha Kitchell, said Lambeth, “he’d ride a bicycle on the path from downtown Miami to the Peacock home...Mona’s uncle captained the boat Julia Tuttle would use to take visitors out on Biscayne Bay. Her aunt started a church with John Sewell,’’ a turn-of-the-century Miami mayor.

Mary Leech, of Lake Placid, Fla., one of Ball’s two remaining siblings, said that the family, who were Seventh Day Adventists, lived on what was then Dan Street, near 12th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

“We thought it was wonderful,’’ Leech said. “The street was white rocks. We ran around barefoot.’’

Morgan Gilbert owned a block plant before the Great Depression, then worked for the City of Miami when his business went bust.

“Most of the hotels were built with his block,’’ Leech said.

The killer hurricane of 1926 destroyed the house, injuring a baby and an adult, Leech recalled, but everyone recovered and the family rebuilt.

Mona went to Miramar Elementary School — long defunct — William Jennings Bryan Junior High, and Miami Edison Senior High, after which she married classmate Phillip P. Altman.

They had a daughter, now Penelope Cabibi, of Louisiana, before divorcing.

Mona, who worked as a bookkeeper, then married Ivan Ball, a Kentuckian who served with the U. S. Army Air Corp’s famous Flying Tigers during World War II. He became financial vice president of City Gas Company, and bought his family a gracious two-story home near Biscayne Bay in the Shores, where she planted exotic trees, raised orchids and bred basset hounds.

For a time, WFOR-CBS4 reporter/anchor Brian Andrews lived across the street.

“This woman was the most dynamic, intelligent, lady,’’ he said. “She oozed the style and sophistication of the ‘Mia muh’ era...She was a world traveler and an author’’ of a children’s book, based on her father’s encounter with a bear.

And although the soul of Southern graciousness, “she loved the way Miami Shores had changed, said Andrews, from Mia muh Shores to the ‘gayborhood...’ She embraced all that diversity.’’

In 1999, Ball told a Miami Herald reporter that she was relieved that Dade Heritage Trust and the Miami City Cemetery Task Force had taken over the cemetery’s care, saving it from vandals and vagrants.

Someone had stolen her parents’ marble vase and her nephew’s military bronze star.

Ball, who became historian for the City Cemetery Restoration Committee, helped plant new trees and restore damaged graves, and encouraged field trips for school children.

“It’s hard to get young people interested in old folks and the dead,” Ball told the newspaper. “It rather turns them off.”

Said Lambeth: “Mona was not an old lady. Not at all. She was stylish, coiffed and lovely even till the last few years. As a younger woman, she was movie-star beautiful...She did enjoy life.”

In addition to her daughter and sister Mary, Mona Ball is survived by sister Bertha Gans, of Lake Placid. Funeral services begin at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Plan Southern Memorial Park, 15000 W. Dixie Hwy.

Burial follows at the Miami City Cemetery, 1800 NE Second Ave.

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