Millie Ward helped start Ward's Seafood Market with her husband, Johnie Ward, in 1955. The one-room storefront cost $2,000 to build. By the time the couple sold it in 1975, it had grown to include five additional rooms.
The landmark business at Greenwood Avenue and Belleair Road continues to operate under the Ward name. The current owner, Rob Cameron, estimates he averages 200 customers a day.
"It was a nice life, and we knew it would be,'' said Millie Ward, whose husband died in 2007, the result of a fall from a ladder. "We figured it would be successful because we knew the area would always have to have a seafood market in operation.''
We spoke with Millie Ward from her home in Clearwater on Thursday.
The 78-year-old did not want to talk politics, but when it comes to oil in the Gulf of Mexico, she does not mince words. "Whenever I heard those words, drill baby drill, I would get a knot in my stomach," she said. "Right now, how can you not be heartbroken?''
What was your reaction when you first heard the news concerning the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico?
I thought immediately of the sea life, and I also thought about the birds. When you work in the seafood business all your life, you think about the sea always.
When you think of difficult times as a business owner, does anything compare to current events in the Gulf of Mexico?
Nothing has hit the business like this has the capability of doing. When we would have Red Tides, people would stop eating fish, and that was difficult.
Do you think a year from now we'll be catching and eating local fish?
It depends on how soon this can be stopped. You know oil has a very strong taste and odor.
Does that mean you've found yourself eating fish affected by oil before?
Not oil, but I do remember having accidentally spilled gas in the boat and getting some gas on the fish. They'd pick up the taste of it right away.
Do you call this disaster a spill?
It's more of an eruption.
What is your favorite way to cook fish?
Fried or broiled. My favorite fish are mullet and snapper.
Were you considered a silent partner in the business?
A silent partner? Oh, my gosh, no. I ran the business while he kept the fish.
What was your most popular item?
Gulf shrimp. We had different sizes, but it sold for about 85 cents a pound. People always love shrimp. We also always sold a lot of mullet and grouper.
Did you clean the fish or did your husband?
Did I clean fish? Every day of my life. I remember one day splitting 1,400 pounds of mullet.
What do you think your husband would be thinking right now over the news of the oil rig explosion?
He wasn't a nervous businessman, but just like everyone is right now, he'd be stressed. He'd be saying, "Pray that it doesn't get to the Florida coast."