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Posted December 9, 2002
107-year old Haitian an odds-defying marvel
father of 20 credits a strong belief in God
BY MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY, Miami Herald Writer

It's been a remarkable life journey for Vilius Vilsaint.

At 75, he fathered his 20th child. At 103 he left his native Haiti and resettled in South Florida. And now at 107, the twice-widowed, retired vegetable farmer -- a man who has 185 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren -- dreams of remarrying (Vilus Vilsaint's photo).

Naturally, age has slowed Vilsaint. He walks with the assistance of a cane. His eyesight is blurred. And some events in his life are faint memories.

But the Haitian emigrant, who lives in Fort Lauderdale with one of his 10 daughters, has defied great odds.

If world health organizations are to be believed, Vilsaint is blessed. Born and reared in Port-de-Paix, Haiti, he has doubled the life expectancy -- 53 years -- for Haitians. That's among the lowest life expectancy rates in the world, and certainly the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.

Surviving Haiti is by no means easy. Persistent political strife, economic hardships and sobering health issues are but a few things that challenge Haitians. The relentless hardships on the island forces hundreds to take to the sea and to place their lives in the hands of fate.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, Haiti's infant mortality rate is 80 deaths per 1,000 births compared to 5.3 deaths per 1,000 in Canada.

So if Vilsaint is as old as he claims, he has nicely trounced the odds.

He was born on Aug. 13, 1895, when Grover Cleveland held the White House, and Florvil Hyppolite the Haitian presidential palace. As proof of his age, Vilsaint holds a Haitian passport. To get one, he had to produce his birth certificate, said Haitian officials in the United States and Haiti.

Vilsaint credits his longevity and vitality on a herbal bush tea he drank periodically, to his strong belief in God, and to good genes.

His father, he said, lived to 110. His mother, to 100. He hopes to live as long as his father, but if not, he said he's accepted the unavoidable.

''I'm more than prepared,'' Vilsaint said recently in Creole. ``Jesus could come get me now. I'm ready.''

A deeply religious man, Vilsaint has memorized the Bible, and takes joy in reciting scriptures.

''If I hadn't kept God I would have been gone a long time [ago],'' he said, advising his sons, daughters, grandchildren, and others to ''Keep God'' in their lives.

For Vilsaint, life's been long, and by no means easy. He had to make do with $500 a year to clothe, feed and educate his brood.

Like his father, he became a farmer, cultivating yams, potatoes, plantains, bananas, and tending livestock. What the family didn't eat was sold.

Vilsaint left Haiti for Cuba for nearly two years to harvest sugar cane. He recalled that the field was run by Fidel Castro's father, Angel Castro.

He remembered seeing the future Cuban dictator, then a young boy, hanging around the sugar cane fields, having fun while his father managed the field workers.


When Vilsaint returned to Haiti, he met and married Anastasie Telisma. During their 25-year marriage, they produced 10 children. Like his handshake, he was firm, said his daughter, Hermantilde Saintil, 65, of Fort Lauderdale, who now takes care of him.

At 53, Telisma -- the first love of his life -- died. Vilsaint was left to raise his 10 children alone.

In 1949, he took another trip to the altar, marrying Merceila Azar. With Azar he had another 10 children. Between the two women,

Vilsaint had 10 boys and 10 girls. Azar died five years ago in Haiti, at 71. Four of the children he had with his first wife have also died. Today, 16 children remain, seven in South Florida, and nine in Haiti. Vilsaint had his first child at age 27. The youngest is his son, Willy, 32, and the oldest is Vilina, 80. Both are in Haiti.

Vilsaint said he wakes up at 5 a.m. most mornings, and doesn't go to bed until 10 p.m. He doesn't speak English, so his days are spent listening to the radio, and taking walks in the neighborhood. He used to enjoy watching television, but his vision has gradually grown weak. He has checked with doctors, but not much can be done for blindness caused by old age, he said he has been told.

But he enjoys the company of his children and grandchildren. Asked if he has a favorite among the grandchildren, he smiles the widest smile yet, revealing no teeth. Then he declines to answer.

''I don't want to make any of them feel jealous,'' he said, through his son, Josue Vilsaint, 52, a baker by trade.

His daughter Hermantilde and son Josue laugh, because they say they all know that he does have a favorite among the bunch. That would be Hermantilde's daughter, Guerline, 34, because she showers him with affection.

Of his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, 90 live in the United States, and 95 in Haiti.

On Sunday afternoons after church, the family gathers in Hermantilde's home. Then, Vilsaint feasts on his favorite food, chicken and rice. In Haiti, he grew up eating foods he grew organically, Josue Vilsaint said.


Vilius Vilsaint got his first taste of South Florida in 1990, coming by plane and returning to Haiti three months later. He came back to Florida in 1991 for nine months. The South Florida branch of the family decided this was the best place for him at this time in his life. So in 1998, he boarded a plane for the permanent move to Fort Lauderdale. He likes the Sunshine State, but misses Haiti at times.

Rutha Vilsaint, 11, one of his granddaughters, said she likes having him here.

''He's usually outside,'' she said. ``He talks to me and asks me about school.''

A sixth-grader at Parkway Middle School in Fort Lauderdale, Rutha speaks Creole with her grandfather. Her brother, Amos Vilsaint, 19, a Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High senior, said he gets a kick out of having a grandfather who is 107 and spunky.

''If he can live to see my kids I would be happy,'' Amos Vilsaint said. ``I would be joyous.''

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