When Lucille Wray was a little girl growing up in Duluth, Georgia, her father, the town druggist, used to ride with a mule and a hired hand, the 30 miles southwest to Atlanta to buy his products, a trip that required an overnight stay in the wagon.
Nowadays the world is much different, as Wray reflected at her 100th birthday party Sunday afternoon on St. George Island.
“They have cars you don’t even have to drive,” she said. “They drive themselves.”
Remarkably sharp for any aging person, let alone someone born when Woodrow Wilson was just beginning his second term, before women could vote, and the First World War still raged in Europe, Wray shared her thoughts in the living room of Kate, the home on the Gulf of Mexico she has owned for the last 25 years.
Next to her birthday cake sat a giant Baby Ruth candy bar, a sweet that together with Coca Cola was her favorite back when she’d scamper around her dad’s drug store. Wray graduated high school in 1934, and then went to work for her aunt Clara at the Button Gwinnett Hotel in nearby Lawrenceville, named after one of the state’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, who was later killed in a duel.
With the nation slowly crawling itself out of the Depression, Wray’s father moved the family to Winter Haven, and bought a house there, and Wray, the eldest of seven children, six of them girls, was among those who went to work to help pay the mortgage.
Wray got a job at a hotel and worked in its tea room, wearing a pink Dotted Swiss dress “with a big sash tied in a bow in the back.” The hotel housed officials with the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps that was a highlight of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, specifically to put unemployed, unmarried young men from relief families to work on public projects. Wray was among the young women who would be taken out to the CCC camp for the dances with the young men.
By 1941, though, Wray was courted by a neighbor, Raymond Buford Wray, one year her senior, who lived across one of the chain of lakes that run through Winter Haven.
“He had to row the boat across the lake, and then we walked to the movies,” she said.
After the war broke out on Dec. 7 (“I remember that Sunday just as well as I remember today”), Buford Wray enlisted in the Air Corps, and was sent to California.
“I was in love with him, but I did not want to get married,” said Lucille Wray.
After the sort of absence that tears at young lovers’ hearts, Buford Wray came back home on a 21-day leave and it was then the two tied the knot, at a minister’s office with his brother and sister in attendance.
Lucille soon joined her new husband in Santa Ana, but couldn’t live on the base, and couldn’t bring a man back to where she lived, because “the people would think you were just following the boys around.” So, they ended up sharing nights at unusual locations, such as a barn.
After Buford finished his military service, the Wrays moved back to Winter Haven, where Buford went to work at the original store for George Jenkins, founder of the Publix chain. The Wrays’ fortunes were bound up with the explosive growth of the Publix chain, and Buford rose in the executive ranks, including becoming a Wednesday afternoon golfing buddy of Jenkins’.
The couple raised three daughters, the eldest Shirley Pace, of Tallahassee, owner of the Gardens Inc. property in the Bowery; Judy Shultz, of St. George Island, former owner of Hooked on Books, and Donna Stafford, of Crawfordville.
Buford passed away in 1988, and Lucille has lived on her own as a widow, until a great opportunity arose a few years ago at a Tallahassee retirement community, where she lives.
She has 35 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even a few great-great-grandchildren. She loves reading murder mysteries.
To what does she credit her longevity, in addition to good genes?
“Moderation in all things,” she said. “I like a vodka and tonic now and then, but I’m not much of a drinker. I’ve never had a beer.”
She did smoke occasionally when she’d come to the beach, with a cup of coffee, gazing out on the water. She doesn’t any more though, and doesn’t allow it in the beach house.
Lucille had no trouble blowing out the 100 candles at her Tallahassee party on her birthdate, Aug. 20, nor the lone one she extinguished on Sunday with a single brisk breath.