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All roads lead to home

By Marty Clear
Published June 29, 2007


Emily Robinson is in full hostess mode. She's planning a big spread for her visitors next week.

"I love to cook and bake, " she said.

She's framing family portraits for display throughout the house.

Not portraits of her own kin, mind you. In fact, she doesn't even know these people.

And, technically, they aren't coming to visit her anyway. They just want to see the bungalow where she lives, at 500 E North St.

That's where three generations of the Keathley family lived, where countless cousins, aunts, uncles and grandkids visited regularly - before the early 1990s, when the house was sold outside the family.

In time, Emily Robinson and Christopher Perry would call the place home.

But the Keathleys never cut ties with the homestead they simply call "500" today.

So a few months ago, Robinson got a letter in the mail.

- - -

For about 70 years, the house on North Street served as the hub of activity for the extended but close-knit Keathley family.

It was built in 1923 when Isobel Keathley Harwell was a little girl. Her family, including seven kids and two adults, moved into the three-bedroom house, which she says never seemed crowded.

"We had just moved from a two-bedroom house at 702 Washington St., " Harwell said this week. "We came to 500 and it seemed like the biggest house in the world."

The kids mostly slept on the "sleeping porch" and spent their days in the back yard.

"Back in those days we didn't have television or even radio, " she said. "We were always outdoors, and we got plenty of exercise."

With her brother and sisters, she attended Seminole Heights Elementary School, which is virtually next door to 500, and later Hillsborough High School, a mile or so down Central Avenue.

"The streetcar came right down Central Avenue, so on rainy days you could take the streetcar to school and they had student tickets for half-price."

Harwell lived in the house until she married at age 21. She returned in 1942 and lived there with her parents and her own children while her husband was away at war.

Her mother lived there until her death in the 1980s. A cousin moved in and stayed there until the early 1990s. Then, for the first time, 500 was owned by someone without Keathley blood.

As the years went on, Harwell, now 89, moved to Dunedin. Today, she and her daughter, Susan Adger, 65, live blocks away from each other in the quaint North Pinellas town.

Occasionally, she has been back to Tampa, back to the house on North Street. She is the only original occupant still alive.

"I've seen the house when my daughter took me by there, " she said. "It's changed a little, but it still feels like the same old house we loved. I remember some wonderful times there."

Adger, who lived in the house in the 1940s, drove by the house a few times over the years, and even went inside a couple of years back. At the time, Robinson and Perry had a roommate who let Adger tour the house.

About four months ago, while planning the annual Fourth of July family reunion, Adger had an idea. She would take a chance and ask the new owners at 500 to host a Keathley family field trip.

She didn't know their names, so she wrote a letter and addressed it to "The owners of the former Keathley house."

A few weeks later, she started to give up. Then she got an enthusiastic e-mail from Robinson, welcoming the entire family to stop by.

- - -

This year's Keathley family gathering will be larger than most, Adger said.

"We have a reunion every Fourth of July, but usually it's just the family that lives in Florida, " she said. "We had a big reunion with people from all over the country 31 years ago, and we wanted to do it again while my mother is still in good health and can enjoy it."

Adger expects 30 to 40 people to come to the reunion at Harwell's house in Dunedin. Some have to catch flights home the next day, but she expects that maybe 25 will make the junket to visit "500." Maybe 10 or 12 of them have lived in the house at some point; the others have all visited.

They'd be happy to drop in and take a quick look around, but Robinson is going out of her way to make them feel at home, although she hasn't met most of them.

Robinson and Perry bought the house three years ago and have been restoring it ever since. Robinson is eager to learn more about its history.

She looks forward to eavesdropping on the family's reminiscences, gathering three generations' worth of stories about her house.

"I'm so excited that they want to come and see the house, " said Robinson, 27, an account manager for Tampa Bay Illustrated magazine.

"I guess they'll just look around the house, but I'm going to be a pretty tight shadow."

Robinson downloaded pictures from the family's Web site and framed them, and plans to put the portraits up next week.

They will bring back memories, especially for Harwell. For the first time in years, she will see the house where she grew up, and the back yard where she once frolicked.

[Last modified June 28, 2007, 07:59:07]

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