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'Miss Mac' was kind, determined

Louise McDuffie raised six children, worked 30 years at a church, made charcoal drawings and wrote children's stories.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 14, 2003

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS -- It's been more than 30 years since Louise McDuffie retired from the First United Methodist Church in downtown Tampa. But members of the congregation say they still feel her presence.

"She was universally admired and appreciated," said former state House speaker Terrell Sessums, a church member and long-time friend of Mrs. McDuffie. "The members had a more constant relationship with her than they did with many of the ministers."

Mrs. McDuffie, known as "Miss Mac" or "Mrs. Mac" even to her closest friends, died Sunday at age 94 at her son's home in Lutz. She had been in declining health for several years, and died of complications from a back injury she suffered in a fall several years ago.

From about 1943 to 1970, Mrs. McDuffie was administrative assistant to the church pastors. New pastors would come and go every few years, but Mrs. McDuffie stayed.

"She was the cohesive unit that was always there to carry us through from one minister to another," said church member Jackie Evans. "Oh, I tell you, it was a sad day when she retired."

It was Mrs. McDuffie who initiated art exhibits in the church's administrative building. She would arrange for local art students and local professional artists to exhibit their work on the walls of a walkway along the perimeter of the building.

"Our children grew up under Mrs. McDuffie's influence," Mrs. Evans said. "A lot of our members, a lot of our children, have a greater appreciation of art because of her."

Church members remember Mrs. McDuffie as efficient, eager to help and always in good spirits.

"She was just so even-tempered with everyone," said another long-time friend and church member, Mary P. Capitano. "She had a great grit and determination, and she never changed."

"She was loving, caring and interested in everybody and everything," Mrs. Evans said.

Mrs. McDuffie's positive nature was especially remarkable because her own life hadn't been an easy one. She was just 32, a mother of six, when her husband, Welbourne, died suddenly at work.

She immediately went to work as a kindergarten teacher at the University of Tampa. Later she opened a kindergarten in her Seminole Heights home. In what little spare time her work and family left her, she studied to become a secretary.

It wasn't an easy time for a woman to make a living, especially a good enough living to support a family of seven.

"We've talked about that from time to time," said her oldest son, Zephyrhills Mayor Cliff McDuffie. "We didn't feel like we were deprived of anything, because we were loved and we knew that."

As a mother, she was ahead of her time, he said.

"She was never stern with us," he said. "She was most concerned with each child being their own person. She did not force anything on us. Her attitude was, if you've got a brain, if you've got talent, you've got to use it."

Even though she was not especially strict, she had a forceful presence, Cliff McDuffie said.

"She was only 5 foot 2, and in her later years, more like 4 foot 11," he said. "But she was always comfortable with who she was, and she knew who she was, and that makes you a bigger person."

Although Mrs. McDuffie was quite practical, she was also relentlessly creative. At home, she was almost constantly working on charcoal drawings.

She also wrote children's stories, and she finished a correspondence course in writing for children when she was 90 years old. At the time of her death she was taking a poetry class.

As her health diminished, Mrs. McDuffie adapted to her circumstances rather than complain.

About five years ago, her vision began to fail. Once she realized that she wasn't going to be able to see well for much longer, she began to learn Braille and studied with the same enthusiasm she had shown in her early years.

Her son, John, recalls that her children had tried to sympathize with her about her progressive lost of vision.

Even though she was nearly blind, she looked on the bright side.

"You know, it's not that bad," she said. "Now, when the sun comes in, everything's Picasso."

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