Felix Simoneaux Jr., of LaPlace, believed to be the nation’s oldest man, died Tuesday night, a month before his 111th birthday, family members said.
Simoneaux held the title of oldest man for three months, said Robert Young, head of research for the Gerontology Research Group, which verifies such claims.
He inherited the title from Andrew Hatch, of Oakland, California, who was 111 when he died on Jan. 18, according to Young’s census and records research.
Simoneaux likely was the seventh-oldest man in the world, Young said. The oldest woman in the United States is believed to be Susannah Mushatt Jones, 116, who lives in New York.
The Simoneaux family said he died at his home in LaPlace after suffering a small stroke last week.
His children said people often asked their father the key to his long life. He always told them, “I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink.”
When the holidays rolled around, he might have a glass of Mogen David wine or a highball, they said, but he took care of himself and even shunned black pepper, which he saw as harmful to his stomach.
Simoneaux was born on May 24, 1905, in the St. Charles Parish town of Montz, one of eight children. The family ended up moving when the federal government expropriated their land in the 1920s as officials made plans for what would become the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
He helped on the family farm, and the farmwork caused him so many school absences that he dropped out at age 13.
As he got older, he taught himself carpentry. “I remember him telling us about how he learned to do carpentry work by reading books,” said his youngest child, Perry “Maurice” Simoneaux, 66, who said his father became a master carpenter who built sugar towers for refineries and was part of larger crews building luxury hotels in New Orleans.
Because few people had cars then, her father would commute using the Greyhound bus, said Myrtle Robichaux, 80.
In the mid-1930s, Simoneaux met his future wife, Myrtle Champagne, across the Mississippi River, probably in Ama, where she had grown up. “They met at a dance, and he said she was the one,” his daughter Myrtle said.
During World War II, Simoneaux was deferred from military service because of poor eyesight, the result of a nail that had broken in his eye. So he helped the war effort on the homefront, working to build the famed Higgins boats, the wooden boats the Allies used for amphibious landings.
Always thrifty, Simoneaux designed and built his house in LaPlace using discarded lumber from the boats. And when he purchased the family’s first car, a 1957 Chevy, he paid for it with cash, just as he did for the family’s first TV set and nearly everything they owned.
“He didn’t believe in checks,” his son Maurice said.
Simoneaux purchased 4 acres of land near the shotgun house he’d designed and built. There, the family kept chickens and a few cows. He also gardened, hunted and fished, both for the family’s table and as a way to earn a little extra cash by selling his vegetables at the French Market in New Orleans.
When she was a child, granddaughter Lori Ponville remembered, Simoneaux always seemed to be in motion. “He worked his fields and would go to the French Market to sell vegetables,” she said.
In recent years, well past his 100th birthday, his children helped him create a smaller garden near his house, which he would tend daily, hoeing out the grass and planting all the seedlings each year.
“He never stopped,” Ponville said.
Until his stroke, Simoneaux was independent, living in his house by himself and getting up to fix himself breakfast. And his mind was keen until the end, Ponville said.
“Two days ago, I walked into the hospital and he said, ‘How is the weather outside and how are you doing?’ ” she said.
“Our blessing was that his mind was still sharp,” his daughter Myrtle said. “Up until he had this mini-stroke, he could recall everything that had happened in his life.”
The family remembered how the local elementary school would send classes to his house to ask him questions about “the old days.” Some neighbors called him “a walking history book.”
When Simoneaux neared his 100th birthday, the family decided to throw a massive party. “We thought, ‘It might be the last one,’ ” Myrtle said.
Then the annual parties went on and on, for another decade, she said. “But he didn’t make this one.”
Though his wife died in 2004, after 69 years of marriage, five of the couple’s six children survive: Myrtle, Maurice, Myra and Carey Simoneaux, all of LaPlace, and Audrey Terrio, of Reserve. He also is survived by many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
The funeral will be Friday at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in LaPlace, with visitation starting at 9:30 a.m. and a Mass at noon.