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What do you get someone for their 100th birthday? Cleo Moss’ family knows, and the gift will be delivered, wrapped in love, at a party to celebrate her century on the planet.

“Why, her children, grandchildren, great grand-children and a great-great grand,” said her son, Henry, from his Chesapeake, Virginia home, where he and his wife now care for his Dunbar-born mom. “That’s what she wants — to see everyone together.”

Cleo Helique McNiell, the first born child of Albert Bentley, Jr. and Sallie Harris-McNiell. came into the world October 27, 1917. It was a Wednesday, and the front-page headlines of the Fort Myers Daily Press (the News-Press’ ancestor) focused on the Great War in Europe. Local news was scarce, though the paper did report wash-outs on the Atlantic Coast Line railroad between Arcadia and Fort Myers. Hundred-pound sacks of “good, weevil-proof corn” were for sale for $3.75, as was a good mule, about 16 years of age for $60.

Her father worked for a while as a shipyard caulker and then for the government before he became the owner/operator of a grocery store on the corner of Palm and Anderson avenues (Anderson is now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard).

 

When Cleo was just 3, her mother died at 33, soon after giving birth to sister, Alphonsine. To help their father raise the girls, Cleo’s maternal grandparents, Thomas S. and Sarah Harris, moved to Fort Myers from Live Oak, where Thomas had been the town’s first black postmaster general.

Cleo graduated from Dunbar High School in 1936, and her name — albeit with a typo spelling it McNeal — is etched in stone on the Memorial Wall of Graduates in front of the historic building, Henry and his wife Marie learned when they made a visit here in June. While they were in town,  they donated Cleo’s high school diploma and graduation invitation to the Lee County Black History Society, so they could be displayed in the Williams Academy, Black History Museum in Clemente Park.

After graduation Cleo went to work on Millionaire’s Row, a stretch of mansions along East First Street, for the family of Clarence B. and Rosamond S. Chadwick.

Mr. Chadwick, who owned a lithography business in Colorado, "conceived the idea of overprinting paper with a pattern which would disclose attempts at altering the face of the check, providing protection against all but the most skillful forgers," according to "The Story of Fort Myers" by Karl H. Grismer.

In the early '20s, Chadwick and his wife, a nationally known opera singer, vacationed on Captiva Island, where they were so impressed they bought 400 acres on the island, which they planted a variety of tropical fruit, including limes sold to grocery store chains nationwide under the name "Chad Limes."

 

Cleo worked at his house in town, known as “The Embankment,' which still stands, with its grand picture windows and 12-inch reinforced poured concrete walls. The Chadwicks were “really nice people,” Henry said. It was while vacationing with the family in Georgia that Cleo met John Leroy Moss.  They were married on Christmas Day, 1940 at Dunbar's Mount Olive AME Church.  Her uncle, The Reverend Henry Harris, performed the ceremony.

A few years after that, the couple moved to Cleveland,  where they had eight children:  John William (deceased), Albert Bentley, Robert Lee (deceased), Rosetta, Charles Edward, Henry Lewis, Janet Marie, and Shirley Ann. After 53 years of marriage, John died in 1993.

Henry remembers his growing up as an Ozzie and Harriet-style life, with his family-first mom fussing over the kids, getting up early every morning to hand-make biscuits and going to everyone's PTA meetings.

 

Later came 16 grandchildren, 20 great-grandkids and one great-great grandchild, Henry said.

And that — more than the clean living, teetotaling and fresh vegetables — is what Henry credits for his mom's long life: all the exercise.

"Running behind all those kids," he said with a laugh. "I think that's her secret."

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