Dorothy Geeben, the mayor of Ocean Breeze Park, Fla. (pop. 463), stands in the entryway of Jensen Beach Christian Church, greeting the 30 or so members of the congregation as they arrive for Sunday service.
“Good morning. How are you today?” says Greeben, the church’s treasurer and organist, flashing her non-stop grin and hugging friends and neighbors.
It’s hard to image that three years ago the little church had no pastor and only four members. Logic called for abandoning the church and finding another place to worship, but Geeben refused. Each week she continued to show up, often praying by herself. Eventually, she found a minister, hired him and the congregation grew.
Single-handedly rescuing a church is one example of Geeben’s spunk. Being elected mayor that same year is another. And, both accomplishments came as Geeben turned 94.
Now 97, she’s believed to be the oldest mayor in the country. “We keep information on our membership only, not all mayors,” explains Elena Temple, spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. With that caveat, her organization’s oldest city leader is a mere 82.
Mayor Dorothy—as everyone in town calls her—moved from Iowa to Ocean Breeze Park with her first husband in 1952. The retirement community, dubbed the “town on wheels” because all residents live in mobile homes, is located along Florida’s eastern coast, three miles north of Stuart, Fla. (pop. 14,633).
Twice-widowed, Geeben served as president of the town council for 31 years before she took over as mayor with the death of her predecessor in 2001. Geeben first ran for mayor in 2002, and last year was re-elected to another two-year term.
“She’s been here so long, she’s a permanent fixture,” says town Clerk Sharon Chicky. “She had no opposition during both elections because everyone’s completely happy with her.”
Geeben receives no pay, but her mayoral duties are fairly light. She attends monthly town council meetings and signs correspondence and checks. Still, Chicky says, “Dorothy is a bona-fide mayor; it’s just that we are very small scale.”
“I get complaints, but I just pass them along,” explains Geeben, ever the diplomat. Her advice to anyone considering public office is simple: “Like people, listen to them, and be honest in your dealings with them.”
“She’s a real trooper,” says her pastor, Gary Landsberg. “She’s very loving and her heart goes out to people.”
Last year, as Hurricane Frances headed toward Ocean Breeze Park, Geeben evacuated, then returned to find her home damaged. But, says fellow parishioner Jim Packer, “she had more compassion for others than she worried about herself.” And, he adds, “If she’s not doing something for the church, she’s going here, going there. She’s always busy.”
“I really don’t have much time to sit down and do nothing,” says the happy-go-lucky Geeben, who teaches a crafts class, plays cards and bingo, and regularly goes out to eat with friends. She does use a walker, but still drives short distances and does her own housekeeping and cooking. She maintains her health by taking her blood pressure medication daily, along with two teaspoons of vinegar and honey.
Geeben has no family nearby, but son, John, who lives in Marion, Iowa, calls once a week to bring her up to date on her two grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.
Needless to say, the elderly mayor has garnered plenty of media attention. Jay Leno even called inviting her to appear on The Tonight Show, but she declined. “Now that she’s famous, I give her a hard time,” Landsberg says, “I say, ‘You better watch out for the paparazzi.’ Of course, she just laughs and takes it in stride.”
Taking things in stride is Geeben’s credo, and to stay active is the reason she’s served all these years. Will she seek re-election in 2006? Without hesitation she answers, “If I’m alive.”