She could put a name with every plate

Published June 22, 2007

Every day for more than 20 years, students at Palm River Elementary School got their breakfast and lunch from Susie Spiller.

Mrs. Spiller died June 15, 2007, a few days shy of her 94th birthday. From 1960 until 1981, she had been a server at the school's cafeteria.

"She loved working at that school, " said her son, Ron Spiller. "She knew all the kids' names, generations of them. Sometimes, years later, she'd see the name of one of them in the paper and she'd say, 'That boy went to Palm River.' "

It wasn't just school kids who got their food from Mrs. Spiller. For 10 years before she went to work at the school, Mrs. Spiller and her husband ran Spiller's Grocery in Tampa's Palmetto Beach neighborhood.

She lived most of her life in the Tampa area, but she spent her childhood in the mountains of Virginia.

"If you're familiar with the TV show The Waltons, that's exactly how she grew up, " her son said.

Her home was very near the setting for The Waltons, and she lived there in the same era. She had a large family - three brothers and four sisters - and the family home looked just like the one used in the television series.

As a young woman, she landed a job with Sears and rose to middle management. Her work eventually brought her to Bethesda, Md., where she met her husband, James.

"They were very different people, " Ron Spiller said, "My mother was very reserved. My father was kind of a wild guy."

Still, their marriage was a long and happy one. They stayed together until James Spiller died in 1979. Ron, their only son, was born when Mrs. Spiller was 44.

They came to Florida in 1960. James Spiller's father had been running the grocery store in Palmetto Beach, and he was getting a little too old to handle it. The Spillers came to help out and eventually took over.

They settled in Palm River, not far from Palmetto Beach. When the store closed in 1960, Mrs. Spiller took the job at the elementary school and remained there until 1981.

She retired and moved to apartments in the Wellswood section of Tampa. She immediately developed a close circle of friends at her apartment building and Wellswood Baptist Church.

"She was so special that I don't know how to describe her, " said her longtime friend Genie Fernandez. "She was like a queen, she was so special. Everybody loved her, and she loved everybody. It won't be the same at [the apartments] without her, I can tell you that."

Even as she advanced in age, she remained healthy and active.

"My mother lived essentially totally independently until about two weeks ago, " her son said. "Out of 94 years of life, she spent maybe 30 days in the hospital."

She was never one to complain, and that may be why doctors didn't discover advanced appendicitis until she needed extensive surgery. She died from postoperative infections.

"It's hard to say goodbye, " her son said, "but she had a great, great ride."

In addition to her son. Mrs. Spiller is survived by two granddaughters.