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Ormond Beach Observer Friday, Jul. 12, 2013 5 years ago

Strike up the band: Hilton Ramirez celebrates 100 years in style

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Ormond Beach's Hilton Ramirez celebrated a century of life July 10, at the senior center.

BY PAULA BUCK | CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Bopping to tunes by the Ormond Beach Senior Center's staple band, The Blue Notes, Hilton Ramirez celebrated his 100th birthday July 10, surrounded by about 80 of his closest friends.

“What a dance! What a place! What a great time!” he said. “I love these people. Friends, family — no, really all family, in one way or another — are all here. I just love them."

Dressed to the nines, dancers demonstrated fancy footwork and elegant style as they waltzed, polka-d, cha-cha-d and line danced. Ramirez even played maracas with “The Rhumba King,” Xavier Cugat, band conductor.

"Now, all I do is play maracas," Ramirez said, "but I’m glad to still be a part of the music.”

Ramirez fondly recalled his younger days in Los Angeles, when he played in Cugat's band. "(Cugat was) a very nice man to work with, and we had a lot of fun," he said.

But Cugat starred in films, as well, co-starring with Red Skelton and Esther Williams in "Bathing Beauty" (1944) and "Neptune’s Daughter" (1949).

“Hilton lives alone," Bill Chandlee, a friend, explained. "He’s been in the same house since the late '40s, and he is remarkably independent. He especially likes to recall his days with Cugat and Tito Puente,” another Jazz and salsa great. 

Chandlee noted that Hilton also enjoyed spending time with Hawaiian star Don Ho, who “actually gave Hilton the jacket he has on today. It’s his favorite.”

"(There is) more to Uncle Hilton's story than most people know," said nephew David Ramirez, who was visiting Ormond Beach from New York, with his girlfriend, Nancy Alejandro. "This place is beautiful! I want to live to be 100, too, if I can do it like this."

“Everyone’s having fun. Everyone’s happy.” niece Anna Ortiz, of Sebring, added.

Although he was born in Puerto Rico, Hilton Ramirez says he considers this country home.

"I’ve been here a long, long time," he said. "I served in the Navy as part of the Armed Guards in World War II. I also owned a liquor store on Seabreeze Boulevard, in Daytona, for a long while. But my main interest was and still is music.”

Friend Leo DiBernardinis believes it, joking near the refreshment tables: "He’s a good dancer — and smart. He makes the girl do all the work.” 

Just then the band struck up, and DiBernardinis asked Janie Petroski, a retired farmer from Ohio, to join him in a waltz. Smiling broadly, she exclaimed, “I haven’t danced in eighteen years! This is great! I used to be a regular here but moved back north for a while. Now I’m back, and I’ll come every Wednesday.”   

Flo Dann, who has been directing the ballroom program since the 1970s, hopes so. "This is a big one," she said. "We usually have about 50 at the regular get-togethers." 

Dances are held 2-4 p.m. every Wednesday.

During a rare musical break, Shiela Boyle, center volunteer, read a tribute from a friend who preferred to remain anonymous.

“Hilton, you and your red shoes and mischievous attitude are a real inspiration," she read. "May God continue to bless you.”

For a moment, the crowd — including several children and teenagers — remained quiet, a moment of respectful silence.

Swiftly, though, the Blue Notes restored the festive tone. And soon the floor was full of feet stepping smartly to the rhythm. Hilton, of course, played his maracas. Couples smiled quietly, observers tapped their toes and nearly everyone hummed along to the grand finale, “Sentimental Journey.” 

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