Barbara B. Mann has been part of the Fort Myers cultural scene since the 1920s, going back to the days she was the female lead in a high school production of a play called "Square Crooks."
Now, 84 years after her 1929 graduation from Fort Myers High, when Thomas Edison handed the 16-year-old thespian her diploma, Mann is a link to a distant past.
"I'm now 99 and 11/12ths," she said with a chuckle a few days before Christmas.
Before the bridge
"Of course I'm excited about it," Mann said, sitting in her home overlooking the Caloosahatchee River.
The house was decorated for Christmas. Walls are covered with newspaper clippings of her achievements. The walls of her office a few steps away are decorated with photos of performers who have graced the stage at the hall bearing her name, the one that opened in 1986.
Outside the window, not far away, the Midpoint Memorial Bridge carried traffic to and from Cape Coral. The bridge didn't exist when Mann, born Barbara Balch, moved to Fort Myers in 1923 with her mother and sister, Helen.
The world of the 1920s is long gone but Mann is still here and about to become a centenarian.
"It sounds so old," she said. "But I don't feel that old. I feel like I did when I was 90."
She'll likely treat her 100th birthday like most other days.
"I don't have any plans but to get up in the morning," she said.
She knows a birthday party is being planned at the hall. She'll go to that and will wear an orchid corsage and lavender dress.
The years, though, are taking a toll.
"She's slowed down a lot in the last year," said Pat Mann, one of her sons.
But the same feistiness and wit are still there, still percolating and ready to pop out at any moment.
"I'm just glad I made it," she said. "I haven't counted on it. I'd just as soon not have many more."
Maybe she's not as spry as when she was 90, but longtime friends still see the same energetic women they've known for decades.
"She's one of the peppiest gals I know," said longtime friend Berne Davis, a 1933 Fort Myers High graduate. "She has so much get-up-and-go."
Davis first met Mann in the early 1930s, when Davis was a Fort Myers High student and Mann was the secretary to the principal, Katherine Row Moore.
"Always full of pep and walking around on those high heels," Davis recalled.
Three churches, concerts, orchestra
Mann was always involved, trying to improve the cultural life of the community. In 1948, she was a founding officer of the Community Concert Foundation of Fort Myers. She's been an officer with the Lee County Alliance of the Arts. She was a founder of the Edison Choraliers and founding member of the Fort Myers Symphony Orchestra.
She was an organist and choir director for three churches. Wherever work was needed or help was needed, Barbara B. Mann seemed ready to help.
"Her efforts were not financial," said longtime friend Sunshine Bobo, who met Mann in 1952. "She's not a moneyed person."
Mann worked for 30 years as office and finance manager for her husband, George, who owned a contracting company. She earned a college degree at age 71.
Bobo and Mann are still friends six decades after first meeting. Bobo said their usual Sunday ritual is going to church in the morning at First Presbyterian in downtown Fort Myers and then lunching at the Oasis Restaurant, where Mann's two sons, Pat and Frank, a Lee County commissioner, often meet them.
Mann's counterpart in Naples is Myra Janco Daniels, the now-retired founder and CEO of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts. Daniels said she and Mann met only once, at an award's event for the PACE Center for Girls. But they know each other.
"She is a woman who believed in her idea and made it possible with drive and vision," Daniels said. "She has been an asset to her community."
Mann still recalls the excitement in the mid-1980s when her son Frank, then a state legislator, called from Tallahassee with news that the state Legislature was coming through with $7 million in funds to help build a cultural arts hall in Fort Myers. Other money was raised through donations.
"I thought it was unbelievable it was going to be a fact," Mann said.
Then they put her name on the place and the young girl who played Kay Ellison in "Square Crooks" in high school now had her name up in lights on the biggest theater in Lee County.
"You can see it for miles and miles," Mann said with a smile. "And it's been good for the community."
The hall was dedicated on Jan. 12, 1986, eight days after she turned 74.
A changed world
Yes, Barbara B. Mann has come a long way from the day when the world's most famous inventor handed her high school diploma.
"I don't remember anything about Mr. Edison," she said.
What she remembers more is meeting Mina Edison, the inventor's wife, who honored Mann after a performance.
"Mrs. Edison was very nice," Mann said. "She had a huge basket of flowers delivered to me on stage. That was a lot more exciting."
When she attends performances in the hall, she goes like anybody else — by purchasing a ticket. No freebies.
"Of course I pay," she said.
She said some folks have told her she should receive free tickets.
"No, I wouldn't want to do that," Mann said. "I don't think it ever occurred to me I should."
Mann can look back at a remarkable life. When she was born, William Howard Taft was president. Taft was the 18th president. Barack Obama is the 44th. That means she's been alive during the administrations of 40 percent of all presidents in U.S. history.
She was born three months before the Titanic sank and Fenway Park opened in Boston.
When she was born, there were 46 states. New Mexico became the 47th state when Barbara B. Mann was 2 days old.
When she was born there was no Collier County. All of what is now Collier was part of Lee County.
She can still recall moving to Fort Myers 90 years ago, taking a train from Reno, Nev., where her mother had secured a divorce from her father, who was in Massachusetts. Mann can recall moving in with her maternal grandparents in Fort Myers in a house near Fowler Street.
"We had a big yard," Mann said. "I remember we had a party where we were bobbing (for) apples."
When she and her mom and sister arrived at the Fort Myers train station in 1923, the Tamiami Trail connecting Southwest Florida to Miami and Tampa was not completed and would not be until 1928.
INSTILLING THE ARTS
In what was then a remote town of about 5,000 she grew up with a love of music and theater and instilled a love of music in her boys. Pat Mann said he received a trombone in the fourth grade and Frank, who was then in third grade, was given a trumpet.
"Pat and I were going to be cultured," Frank Mann recalls of his mother's priorities.
Pat Mann recalls a childhood when mom was always around despite a busy schedule that included work and cultural activities.
"She was a good cook," he said. "We ate just about every night sitting at the dining room table like you're supposed to."
Now, after those fun days in high school, marriage, children and grandchildren, helping run a business and being a cultural force in her community for decades, Mann seems content.
"I had a lot of nice things happen to me," she said.
And her name is up in lights for all to see, right there on the campus of Edison State College at Barbara B. Mann Hall.