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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2002
My friend, Dr. Melba Partin, slipped into a coma and died last Sunday after a life of 89 years, during only six or seven of which I was privileged to share her company.
And there is something key in that statement.
Everyone who knew Dr. Partin, mother of west Pasco architect and sculptor Charles Partin, felt exactly that way at being around her.
Three generations of her family wanted her at family events. It was never a case of "did someone remember to invite Grandma?" It was always, instead, an integral part of the invitation, "Please come. Melba will be there."
It was a sure draw.
Born in Savannah, Ga., in 1913, Dr. Partin grew up during the Great Depression in the Florida Panhandle city of Graceville and in a time and place where women weren't often educated.
She lived in a house with no running water and electricity and had to pick cotton to raise enough money to buy a dress to wear to her high school graduation.
She got married, and she and her husband, Sharrod, began teaching grade school right after high school graduation, something you could do back then.
Dr. Partin pursued education the same way she pursued everything else in life, steadily and with a genteel but still dogged determination. She went to the Florida State College for women during summer breaks until she obtained her bachelor's degree and received a master's degree in education.
She taught history and reading at schools in Starke, Eustis and Pensacola and, on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1961, went to the University of Poona in India where she studied Indian culture and visited each of the country's provinces except Kashmir, where the war for independence was already raging.
When I wrote the other day about friends who were as busy or busier in their retirement than in their working lives, Dr. Partin was one of the people I had in mind.
When she retired from teaching in the public school system, she and her husband both went to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg where they both obtained doctorates in education. After that she taught doctorate level education courses and reading at Delta State College in Cleveland, Miss.
When they retired a second time in the 1980s, they moved to New Port Richey to be close to their son and his family.
Widowed in 1993, she stayed constantly active, painting with oils and watercolor and spending time with her son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She was at home in conversations about cooking, religion, literature and philosophy, always politely hearing others out, equally politely unshakeable when she knew she was right. She had a wonderful deep Southern accent highlighted by overtones of culture and education. She also had a quick wit.
At one family event I was standing near the door when she entered.
"Jan," she said, placing a hand on my arm, "do you know where Charles is?"
"Of course," I answered. "He's out by the beer keg, you know that."
"I knew that," she intoned gravely, looking over the top rim of her glasses at me, "I simply did not know where the beer keg was."
Dr. Partin's was a life lived on her own terms, right up until its end. When it came time to stop driving, it was she who made the decision, surrendering her car after a couple of minor accidents. When injuries from a fall limited her mobility, it was she, on her own, who decided on an assisted living facility and who chose the facility.
Other than the joy, beauty, warmth and color they bring to us, the Melba Partins in our lives also serve as a valuable guide about how to live the rest of them.
I began, in my mid 40s, picking out people who were older than I whom I wanted to emulate in terms of dignity and grace and understanding.
Dr. Partin was one of the best I found.
To be sure, there are those who will note as I grow older that I fall far short of the goal set so high by her and a handful others.
But I will be better for having tried.