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Reading, humor key to long life

Florence Leonard observed her 101st birthday Aug. 28. A native of Kentucky, she moved to Michigan in 1933. Her advice to people is to be honest, work hard, behave and stay out of trouble.

August 29, 2013
When Florence Leonard's favorite book, "Gone With the Wind," was published in 1936, she was 24 with a husband and a 1-year-old son.

At 101, Leonard, a longtime Grosse Pointe resident reads every day.

"I have a subscription to the Grosse Pointe News. I read the Detroit Free Press every day. I read books, novels and papers," she said from her easy chair at Sunrise Senior Living: Assisted Living Facilities in Grosse Pointe Woods. "I have a niece who is a reader. She brings me her books."

Leonard was born Aug. 28, 1912, in McKinney, Ky., the second youngest of six children of Zora and Maudie Smith. She grew up on a farm and was one of 13 in McKinney High School's first graduating class, 1930.

According to her granddaughter, Leigh Backon of St. Clair Shores, Leonard and her friends were told by the hometown doctor to pursue a nursing career because they would always have work. Knowing she wanted to continue her education, Leonard took his advice and enrolled in a nursing school. However, when it came to paying the $50 tuition, she didn't have it.

"She borrowed it from her older sister," Backon said.

Following her 1933 graduation, Leonard's first objective was to repay her sister. The new nurse moved to Detroit for post graduate work in obstetrics at Women's Hospital, which became Hutzel Hospital. She said she chose Detroit because a brother and sister had moved to Michigan.

She married Frederick Leonard in December 1934. They moved into a four-room flat in Grosse Pointe Park and later moved to Hawthorne in Grosse Pointe Woods and finally Stonehurst in Grosse Pointe Shores. The couple raised a daughter, Colleen, born in 1935, and a son, Dwight, born in 1942. She now has six grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.

Her husband had a cutting and tool company in Warren.

Backon went on to say the house on Stonehurst holds a lot of memories for Leonard's grandchildren because her grandparents often entertained friends and family having one of the first big screen televisions, a pool table and a slot machine.

"She was a good baker, cookies, and she made the best applesauce," Backon said.

The Leonards enjoyed the theater, holding season tickets to the Grosse Pointe Theatre and attending performances at Detroit theaters, Backon said.

Leonard is a charter member of the Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church and was a member of the Grosse Pointe Woods Garden Club. Backon added that her grandmother has enjoyed participating in craft sessions at church.

Leonard said she was involved with the PTOs at Mason Elementary School, Parcells Junior School and Grosse Pointe High School when her children were young. When they grew up, Leonard said, she and her husband traveled around the United States and Europe, with Ireland and Sweden being her favorites.

"I liked to travel. We traveled a lot in the United States. I like the Smokys (Mountains)," she said.

Looking back at how the world has changed, Leonard said she can't believe how small the phones are, how much people pay for blue jeans, the amount of traffic and how Mack has changed from a dirt road to four paved lanes, lined with businesses. The greatest invention for her were cars. She was particular to driving new black Cadillacs, she laughed.

Leonard doesn't drive any more, nor does she know the secret to her longevity. Backon, however, maintained it is a sense of humor and going out once a week — an old-fashioned on the rocks and eating at Champs with her grandchildren to which she passes on the advice her parents gave her, "be honest, work hard, behave, play hard and stay out of trouble."

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