“Florence of Florence” has given up her car keys at age 98 — after 80 years of driving without receiving a ticket or causing an accident.
“I just decided it was time to quit,” she said with a smile. “I've been lucky all these years, and I'll retire with a clean record.”
Florence Fitzgerald has lived much of her long life in the Florence neighborhood of far northeast Omaha.
Just about everyone in Florence calls her Florence, including Carli Borsh, 16, who is the lucky recipient of her next-door neighbor's car.
“Florence is just great,” said Carli, a junior at Central High. “She's like a grandma to me. She told me earlier in the year that she wanted to give me her car, but I didn't really believe her.”
Florence turned 98 on Oct. 8, and her driver's license was expiring. On her birthday, she drove a few blocks to the Douglas County Treasurer's Office on North 30th Street to obtain a government-issued identification card — instead of a new license.
But the office was closed for Columbus Day, so she drove back the next day. Not to be too technical, but she was driving on an expired license.
“Since they were closed on my birthday,” she said, “I figured I would surely have a day of grace.”
She got the new ID card and drove home for the last time. “I put the car back in the garage, and that was it.”
Was she nostalgic?
“Yes, and I miss it already,” she said. “I'm used to getting in that car and going to the drugstore or maybe out to Target. But in the last couple of years, I've stayed in this vicinity.”
Over her lifetime, though, her driving vicinity has been North America, from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls.
“I've driven all over,” she said. “The Northwest, down to Florida, to Texas and Arizona. I've driven to Nova Scotia and to Calgary. The only place I didn't drive to was California.”
Fred Zwonechek, administrator of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, said Florence's driving record is impressive, especially for a city dweller. Others have surrendered their licenses with similar histories, he said, including drivers in rural areas.
“It's challenging in an urban setting,” he said. “If you do a lot of driving in Omaha or Lincoln, your exposure to risk goes up.”
At the end of last year, 78 Nebraska centenarians held driver's licenses, though Zwonechek said that doesn't mean all of them still drive.
In terms of risk, he said, older drivers aren't a big problem. Nebraska motorists 75 and older make up 7.5 percent of the driving population but only 3.9 percent of the drivers involved in crashes last year.
Florence was born on a farm in Richardson County in southeast Nebraska, the fifth-youngest of six children — all daughters — of Martin and Mary Kelly. (Her parents each lived to 89, and she has sisters 99 and 94.)
The family moved to Omaha when Florence was in seventh grade, and her father worked in the South Omaha Stockyards. She graduated from the old Sacred Heart High School and started driving at 18.
She attended St. Mary College and at 19 married electrician John Fitzgerald, who had grown up — where else? — in Florence.
Seven years into their marriage, America entered World War II. John joined the Navy and was assigned to Hawaii, where he spent the duration. Florence, in “Rosie the Riveter” style, helped make ammunition, including large shells, at the Omaha Steel Co. plant.
A recruiter for Army intelligence stopped by, and she took a job near Washington, D.C., helping to decipher encrypted Japanese documents with the help of an IBM computer. A roommate there, whose husband was in the Army in Europe, had a car but didn't drive — so Florence would drive the pair on days off to Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Blue Ridge Mountains and other locales.
Florence and John, meanwhile, stayed in touch for four years only through letters — no visits or phone calls.
After the war, they returned to Omaha. She began a 29-year career in collections with the Metropolitan Utilities District. His work included electrical installation for the construction of Municipal Stadium, which opened in 1948 and later was renamed Rosenblatt Stadium.
She still lives in the house she and her husband bought in 1954. John died in 1993. They had no children, but her home is decorated with photos of great-nieces and great-nephews.
She is active at nearby St. Philip Neri Catholic Church and says she is fortunate to have great neighbors. She is happy to give Carli her 1992 Dodge Spirit — it has a bit of rust, Florence says, but there are no dents, the tires are new and the heater and air conditioning work. (Not especially a car buff, she says vehicles have always been just transportation.)
Carli, who plays volleyball at Central, is the youngest of four children of Frank and Sharon Borsh. He works for the Union Pacific, and she is a waitress at Charley's on the Lake.
The Borsh family takes care of Florence's grass and snow and other maintenance needs and keeps a close watch on her and her home.
“They do everything for me,” she said. “You can't beat neighbors like that.”
Florence is an avid reader who doesn't watch much TV.
“I have good hearing and good eyes,” she said, “which I think is why I was able to keep driving.”
She didn't putter, she said, and always tried to drive the speed limit. Twice over the years on icy days, cars slid into hers. There were no injuries, and Florence says she didn't cause the collisions.
So, she says, her clean driving record is intact. (Unless you count those fender benders.)
She wishes Carli happy, safe, defensive driving. Carli, who got her license in July, says Florence's spotless driving record is a lot to live up to.
“It's a little intimidating,” she said. “I hope I don't crash the car.”
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