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A tourist in her own town

Just what was it like to see downtown for the first time in more than a decade? Full of many discoveries.

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Isabelle Maxwell waves goodbye to her friends at the Egret Cove nursing home after she climbed into her waiting limo.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Ten years had passed since Isabelle Maxwell last came downtown. She returned on Wednesday in style.

The almost-93-year-old resident of Egret Cove, a nursing home in southwest St. Petersburg, was handed into a white Lincoln stretch limousine at 10:30 a.m. and spent three hours touring the new downtown, dining at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort with the chichi lunch crowd and stopping at City Hall for a brief schmooze with Mayor Rick Baker.

Mrs. Maxwell's jaunt was arranged by staff at Egret Cove and underwritten by Sten-Barr Medical Inc. and the Vinoy.

"We called the program Wishes from the Heart," said administrator Rick Moss. "Our residents were asked to give us their fondest desire or wish."

Only three out of about 120 residents were well enough to respond. One requested a lesson in landscape painting, another wanted a trip to the library to access the Internet, and Mrs. Maxwell desired the day trip. All were granted.

"If I would've had a big wish," Mrs. Maxwell said, "it would be to go on Wheel of Fortune. I get a lot of the words, if I do say so. But it wasn't sensible."

Instead, she said, "I would like to see what's happening downtown."

Isabelle Maxwell was born June 14, 1908, in Monson, Mass. She attributes lifelong back problems to her premature birth.

"They took my mother to the hospital but the doctor said, "We won't take the baby because she won't live.' A family friend put me on a pillow in front of a wood stove," Mrs. Maxwell said.

The country school did not have room for her when she was young, so her mother taught her to read at home.

She was active in the 4-H Club throughout her youth and a county and state champion in canning. Her prowess landed her an invitation to accompany a missionary to Labrador to teach the native population about food preservation, but her mother would not let her go.

"She was afraid the boat would sink," Mrs. Maxwell said.

After three hours of exploring downtown, Mrs. Maxwell shakes hand with the man who governs it, Mayor Rick Baker.

She attended college, studying home economics, but did not graduate and worked at various domestic jobs.

Mrs. Maxwell was raised a Methodist, "but there were so many unanswered questions. I came into contact with Pentecostal people. I was baptized in a river and I spoke in tongues. I still follow the doctrines, and I go to church every week."

She said she met her husband, Ethan, in church. They were married in 1938 and settled in Maine. He worked "in textiles;" she worked as a receptionist, domestic and sometimes a substitute teacher. He died in 1964.

She came to St. Petersburg on Feb. 24, 1970, on her first airplane flight, "Eastern Airlines," she said, to visit friends. Three days later, she bought a house in Gulfport. Her son Porter joined her. She had worked at a W.T. Grant department store in Bangor and transferred to the Grant's at Central Plaza. She retired when the store closed, and started babysitting.

"Some of them were brats," Mrs. Maxwell said.

She joined the Maine State Society, St. Petersburg Book Club and the Gulfport Bird and Garden Club. And she volunteered, cleaning used pill bottles for the Free Clinic.

"One year I did over a thousand," she said.

She also volunteered at Egret Cove, visiting the residents and baking banana bread. When her own health began to fail, she moved in. Porter Maxwell works there as the assistant activities director.

She said she misses her independence, "but a person's attitude is important. I do get impatient, I know. My roommate is out of it most of the time. This morning she accused me of stealing her stockings. You have to be adjustable."

Isabelle Maxwell has some health issues, but she boasts that "the technician said my heart was perfect" after a recent EKG test.

Her days at Egret Cove are filled by a schedule of activities such as current events and music, which she loves, and religious services, which she does not. "Someone comes from the Baptist church," she said. "It's dead as doornails. We Pentecostals clap our hands and jump around."

Jo Wieand, her home health care nurse for many years who is now retired, comes by and takes her to lunch once a week.

As busy as she is, the trip downtown is a major departure from her routine.

Mrs. Maxwell smiles as the limousine pulls into the driveway and the staff gathers with cameras to record the moment.

"I've never ridden in a limo," she says.

Mrs. Maxwell makes her way into the Terrace Room restaurant at the Vinoy. The hotel was built in 1925. She was born in 1908.

Mrs. Maxwell has invited Mrs. Wieand to be her guest on the outing so they climb in along with Rick Moss, the administrator. Because of her religious beliefs, Mrs. Maxwell does not take advantage of the stocked bar inside.

"This is very nice," she says.

The car makes its stately progress down Central Avenue, past the old Grant's, now a discount store, toward the towers that mark downtown. They drive by Tropicana Field and around the waterfront.

"It's changed so much I wouldn't know it," Mrs. Maxwell said. "All the tall buildings."

The limo pulls up to BayWalk. They visit a women's clothing store and Mrs. Maxwell says, "I'm a conservative person."

They enter the lobby of the multiplex.

"All the movies were black and white when I was young," she recalls. "My first talking picture was Amos and Andy. The fellow I was going with had a printing business and he printed the tickets so I had all kinds of passes."

She passes on seeing a movie.

"I watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy," she says.

They take a spin around The Pier before arriving at the Vinoy.

"I've always wanted to eat here," she says.

She pauses to look at the grand appointments of the hotel built in 1925 and younger than Mrs. Maxwell.

Seated in the Terrace Room, she reviews the menu.

Eschewing the grilled veal paillard with Maytag blue cheese, duck confit spring rolls and pan-roasted cod wrapped in Parma ham, she says, "I want a big salad."

"A salad?" Moss asks.

"We get such stinky little ones at our meals," Mrs. Maxwell says, grinning. Mrs. Wieand, the retired nurse, persuades her to split a grouper sandwich, too.

A plate loaded with mixed field greens dressed with champagne vinaigrette arrives. Mrs. Maxwell tucks in, consuming most of it. She drinks water.

The sandwich arrives and she eats all the fish, none of the roll, one French fry and a good bit of the cole slaw.

"What will your heart's desire be next year, Mrs. Maxwell?" Moss asks.

"I'd like to take a drive out along the beaches. Then lunch here," she answers.

She declines dessert and coffee.

They return to the limo and make a final stop at City Hall. Mayor Rick Baker comes out to greet Mrs. Maxwell.

"I still keep my legal address in Gulfport," she tells him.

She gets back into the limo and begins the journey back to reality. Isabelle Maxwell is ready to go home.

"I would get spoiled if I did this very often," she says.

Besides, she points out, she has an afternoon Bingo game and nap to get to.

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