Doris Wheeler – 104 Years Young
Ask Doris Wheeler what the secret to living a long life is and she doesn’t hesitate. ‘Highballs’, she replies, looking you right in the eye so you know she’s not kidding. “Whiskey and ginger.”
At 104 years old and sprier than most 60-year-olds, she ought to know. Because not only does Doris drink highballs, she also cuts a mean rug most Monday nights at Bonita Bill’s – where she has become the de facto mascot of the weekly jam session. This has earned her legions of adoring fans worldwide – including host Gary ‘Space Ghost’ Young, who makes sure a special table is set up for Doris when she’s not tearing up the dance floor. We met up with Doris on Memorial Day at her home on Whitewater Court, where her son, Billy and caretaker – Billy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Celantano – told us a bit about this extraordinary centenarian.
“Mom was born in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1912,” Billy told us. “Later she lived in Providence, Rhode Island, then we moved to Johnston when my brother was born and that’s where I grew up.”
- When Doris was born, women had yet to be given the right to vote, the life expectancy in the United States was only 51.5 years, automobiles had only just begun to be mass produced and zeppelins filled the skies instead of airplanes. The average price for a gallon of gas was 7 cents, for a loaf of bread, 5 cents, and a medium-priced home was around $2,700.
Doris told us how her love of dancing has been a lifelong one, but she used to get in trouble when she was younger because in those days unmarried women did not go to dance halls unescorted.
“I went anyway, I’d sneak out,” she said, laughing. “Nothing’s going to stop me from dancing.”
It was while living in Rhode Island that Doris was taught the proper way to collect clams.
“You use a plunger – just put it over the hole and the clam pops out,” she said. “But make sure it’s a new plunger.”
Doris’ first husband served in World War II as a mechanic in the Marines. When we asked how long she was married to him, Doris replied ‘too long’ and started laughing.
“I’ve got three kids – Billy, Carolyn and Roy, three grandkids and two great-grandkids,” she told us.
Billy told us that, after his father died, he and Doris started coming to Fort Myers Beach, where Doris first lived at Silver Sands before deciding there were too many spring breakers along that stretch of the island.
“After that she moved to Palm Terrace – she was in her 90’s then and lived by herself until one day they got worried about her walking upstairs after her afternoon highballs,” Billy said. “So I started bringing her down in my RV, and I’d put her in my little boat and take her to Bonita Bill’s. One year I took her to Key West and these college kids took us out and paid for all her drinks – it was a blast!”
It wasn’t long before her fame began to grow, and now people flock to see her every Monday night.
“If I show up without her, I get yelled at,” Billy told us, laughing. “Have you ever been yelled at in German? I don’t even know what they’re saying, I just know they’re mad my mom’s not there.”
Billy says his mom is beginning to take it a bit slower these days, so she may not make it every Monday, but wants everyone to know she’s doing fine.
“She’s been through a lot and she always jumps right back up,” he told us. “She beat cancer when she was in her 70’s, and she fell and broke her hip on the day after her 102nd birthday. When she was at the hospital, she got right out of bed and started walking around. The doctors were amazed, and she told one of them he was a hunk.”
What’s even more amazing is that – aside from occasional cortisone shots – Doris only takes one type of prescription medication.
“She takes thyroid pills – that’s it,” Elizabeth told us. “I’ve been her caretaker for eight years, and she never ceases to amaze me. And she’s gotten so famous! When I take her shopping, people come up to us in Target and say ‘You’re that dancing lady from Bonita Bills’. They love her.”
Billy bought the house on Whitewater Court several years ago as a rental, and moved into it with his mom after she told him how much she liked it. Elizabeth moved in and the family was complete. On the day we visited, Doris held court in her recliner, where she looked at old pictures and watched Judge Judy with a gleam in her eye.
“I love it here, I love Fort Myers Beach,” she said. “And I love to go dancing.”
Keri Hendry Weeg