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Anita Bogan, 106; proved old age is no obstacle

March 17, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

People who watched Anita Bogan on the golf course might have thought that maybe we have it all wrong, maybe old age is not the curse that conventional wisdom makes it out to be.

Blessed with good health and a sound mind, Bogan spent most of her old age doing what she wanted to do, with a feisty, what's-age-got-to-do-with-it attitude.

In the decades after her 80th year, she created a nonprofit foundation to build senior housing, made frequent trips to Las Vegas to gamble, opened a floral shop, played golf daily, adopted two grown daughters, took cruises to celebrate her 101st, 102nd, 103rd birthdays, played poker and inspired people.

Simply by living, Bogan changed the way those around her thought about aging. On March 10, when she passed away at a hospital in Lancaster, she changed their views about dying. Bogan, a resident of California City, was 106 and died from a blood clot.

"I would hope to be able to get around half as well as she did when I'm 80, much less 106," Richard Hall, a longtime friend and former mayor of California City, told The Times this week. "She was always active. She played golf up until she was 102."

The Mojave Desert town that Bogan called home since 1972 was changed by her presence. Because of her it has senior housing known as Desert Jade Villas, a housing authority that administers federal funds and a street called Anita Bogan Circle. In 2000, on Bogan's 100th birthday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors declared an "Anita Bogan Day."

"My father was a Methodist minister, and he taught me whatever community you live in, you owe it something; it owes you nothing," Bogan told a Times reporter in 1999.

Born in Minden, La., on Nov. 25, 1900, Bogan visited California in 1924 and decided to make it her home. She followed her love of flowers and eventually found work in a floral shop.

An entrepreneur, she ran a transportation service for African American railroad workers, opened her own floral shop on 56th Street and Avalon Boulevard in Los Angeles and ran a wedding chapel in the garden of her home.

For their events, African American celebrities all "went to the black florist, and she was pretty much it during that time, the '30s, '40s, '50s in L.A.," said Dee Dee Kennedy-Brown, Bogan's cousin. "She had pictures with Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, you name it."

As a child, Patricia Martin treasured the time spent in the floral shop and home of "Auntie Anita," the wife of her step-uncle. Martin's mother passed away when she was 18 months old.

"I always thought she was such a rich, eloquent woman," Martin said. "She drove a Cadillac, and she wore hats. That's fascinating for a child. And all those pretty flowers and the way she could talk to people. She was just special."

Martin and her cousin Gloria Foreman never forgot Bogan, even after she divorced their step-uncle and moved away. Years and years later, when Martin and Foreman were in their 60s, they found Bogan again. The three women discovered that their love for one another had not changed; nor had their need.

"My mother died when I was 18 months, and my cousin's birth mother had abandoned her, so we needed a mom and [Bogan] always wanted girls," Martin said. "I was just led one day to ask her to adopt us."

In response, a tearful Bogan said she would love to.

In a 2001 ceremony conducted by a minister, Bogan adopted Martin and Foreman, a symbolic act that confirmed their mother-daughter bonds. In addition to Martin and Foreman of Los Angeles, and Kennedy-Brown of Playa Vista, Bogan is survived by a goddaughter, Helen Skillern of Houston.

"This is the greatest thing that has happened to me in my whole lifetime," Bogan told a Times reporter after the ceremony.

The women who had grown up without a maternal figure now had Bogan, someone they could talk to about anything, who listened, encouraged them and often made them laugh.

"It was quite a relationship," Martin said, "one that I thank God for on a daily basis."

Before finding Bogan again, Martin thought growing old mostly meant sickness. But years after her 100th birthday, Bogan was still taking cruises, staying up late in the ship casino playing the slots and making friends with the cabin boys.

In her community Bogan was a respected resident, one whose views were sought and valued. For 15 years, Bogan pushed for the construction of senior housing in a town that had none. When she was in her 80s, Bogan helped form a nonprofit agency and persuaded property owners to donate the land that was needed. She ignored naysayers who questioned the need for such housing.

In 1993, Desert Jade Villas was opened. Bogan's efforts also led to the creation of a housing authority in California City. The agency serves as a conduit for federal housing funds.

So many seniors applied for the housing that there was no way to accommodate them, and officials "started looking at the probability of building a Desert Jade II," Hall said.

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