FORT WORTH (AP) – Surrounded by relatives on his 108th birthday, the Rev. Eugene Florence smiled Wednesday when reminded about the significance of the date.

“Granddaddy, are you 27 today? Or are you 108?” joked Yolanda Taylor, referring to Feb. 29, which shows up on the calendar every four years.

“I thought I was 108,” Florence said, as his loved ones laughed.

Florence was a pastor at a Fort Worth church until about 10 years ago. He continued preaching and speaking to groups until about three years ago — when he also stopped driving and working in his garden, relatives said. Florence is in a wheelchair but remains in good health and loves listening to baseball games and playing dominoes, relatives said.

He said he has a few secrets to living so long.

“It’s staying away from liquor,” he said in his soft voice, adding that he doesn’t get mad and drinks plenty of water.

Taylor, 64, said Florence is “a comedian” and credits his sense of humor for his longevity.

His daughter, Emma Evans, 83, lives next door and cares for Florence each night. She said he’s always been a good father — urging his children to get an education and being a fair and calm disciplinarian. She said she doesn’t think about his age.

“He’s just daddy,” Evans said.

Florence wanted to become a preacher in the 1940s, and had to attend seminary at night because black students weren’t allowed to take day classes. He earned a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1951 — even though the school’s policy at the time barred black students from receiving such degrees.

In 2004 when Florence was 100, the Fort Worth seminary awarded him the Master of Divinity degree during its winter commencement. As he leaned on his cane and slowly walked up the steps to receive his diploma, the crowd of more than 2,000 rose to its feet and applauded loudly.

He held many jobs through the years — working in construction and as a maintenance worker while attending seminary. After he was a pastor, he also worked in a drugstore in the 1950s and was a housekeeper at Texas Christian University’s tennis center from 1964-95.

On Wednesday, Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead presented a birthday cake to Florence at a party organized by Meals on Wheels officials. Florence grinned as people wished him a happy birthday.

“I think it’s great,” Florence said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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