Miami was still very young — equivalent to a first-grader — when Anita Schuck was born 1,500 miles away in Boston.
But Schuck and Miami would later grow up together, weathering a world of changes that played out in front of her porch in Miami’s Roads neighborhood.
Schuck, her husband Guillermo and first-born son William, now 85, moved to the home in 1939 from Puerto Rico, where the Schucks married in 1926.
The family had had many “only in Miami” moments, and Schuck — who died at 111 on her birthday on May 10 — shared her stories with visitors who stopped by to hear them. She held court from a white plastic lawn chair on her beloved porch.
One of her eager listeners was artist Xavier Cortada, who moved next door 20 years ago. Schuck told him about the German soldier who rapped on her back door, which faced U.S. 1 and the wilderness, to ask for a loaf of bread. During World War II, it was not unheard of for German U-boat submariners to try to sneak onto Florida shores.
“Here’s someone who ... saw Miami before all these World War II soldiers came here and trained in Miami Beach,” Cortada said, enamored of a woman who lived life on her own terms for more than a century.
“I would always come say ‘hi’ to her,” Cortada said. “It was almost like a ritual that allowed me to press pause in a world that’s moving so fast and about having little contact with people. She transported me on a daily basis to another place and time. She embodies that sense of community. I don’t know what’s going to happen next door, but it’s a metaphor for our community. She connected me to a Miami that was.
“Her departure signals a new sort of Miami. People around the block would revere her for her perseverance and they would talk to her all the time,” Cortada said.
Majestic banyans filter sunlight onto the front porch Schuck cherished for decades. The trees were mere saplings when the family, which would grow with the addition of son Robert, now 73, first settled in this house, which still has no air conditioning.
“She was very independent, and she had no intention of ever leaving the house,” said Robert Schuck, an adjunct business professor at Miami Dade College. Widowed for 53 years, Anita Schuck sailed through a hip surgery at 102 with no pain, her son said. “She could get around fine, and at 100, she never had any medicine. She outlived about eight or nine doctors. She grew up on a farm [in the Boston area], and there were no preservatives and she did a lot of walking. I think that’s why she lived so long. She had a healthy diet and upbringing.”
Schuck graduated in 1924 from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts with a liberal arts degree; at her death, she was the school’s oldest living graduate. She worked in the book department at the downtown Miami Burdines department store on Flagler Street from 1954 until she was “forced to retire” in the 1970s, her son said.
That would be one of the few times someone successfully told Schuck what to do.
“What was amazing is she lived in her own house up until a few months ago, which was phenomenal,” said the Rev. Wilifred “Willie” Allen-Faiella, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where Schuck sang in the choir for most of her 60 years as a parishioner of the church. “You didn’t tell Mrs. Schuck what to do.”
Cortada marveled at the moment he first met Schuck 20 years ago when, in her 90s, she raked her own leaves, walked without cane or walker to the nearby Winn-Dixie, and carried her own groceries.
“I was literally wowed by her,” he said. “She possessed an incredible strength, clearly by her endurance. She represented a moment in time that was frozen as time lapsed around her. She would always be on the porch looking at her beautiful trees and you would reach out to get these pearls of wisdom from her. She would always say the same thing — what a beautiful day it was, how beautiful her trees were. That idea about being able to press pause and sort of be in the moment was something inspirational for me.”
Schuck, who loved to paint and wrote a line in her diary every day until she was 108, served witness to Miami from the vantage point of her porch and, in a larger sense, the world around her.
“She was 9 when the Titanic happened. World War I. World War II. Women getting the vote. Telephones. Radio. Television. Computers. She lived through all of that and how radically the world changed in that period — more than at any time in our history,” Allen-Faiella said.
Schuck, who refused efforts to modernize her home, spoke of similar hopes for the Grove church’s next 100 years on its own 100th anniversary in 2010 when she was honored at 107 with its Woman of Valor award. “I hope it will be very much like now. I mean, why change? If you have a good thing, why change it?” Schuck said in a Miami Herald column.
“After church, she always sat on a bench outside in the breezeway,” Allen-Faiella said. “My husband said, ‘Why don’t you come inside where it’s air-conditioned? It’s so hot out here.’ She’d say, ‘No, thank you. It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful garden. I love the weather and Florida. Besides, where else can I sit and have so many men kiss me as they walk by?’ She had that crinkle in her eye. That kind of sense of humor.”
Allen-Faiella said the church plans to dedicate that bench in Schuck’s memory.
Schuck is survived by her two sons, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have not been scheduled yet.