SAFETY HARBOR — Long before the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center existed, Mattie Williams was helping people.
She fed struggling families through a food pantry. She picked up kids on a bus to go to church and bought them shoes if they needed them.
When the nonprofit Safety Harbor Neighborhood Family Center started in 1996, she came on board as a volunteer and later an employee. For years, she manned the front desk, maintained the clothes closet, cooked for events.
She showed up through four bouts with cancer, stopping by even after she retired. Soon, she became the center's namesake.
"She was the heart and soul of this place," said Janet Hooper, the center's executive director.
A longtime Safety Harbor resident, Mrs. Williams died early Tuesday in hospice, her family said. She was 71.
Her compassion came naturally, her family recalled, as an instinct to treat others with kindness. Mrs. Williams saw good even past the bad, they said.
But that didn't mean she gave free passes.
"She can discipline you," her son, Eric Williams, said, "and in the same breath, be bringing you your dinner, knowing you did wrong but still can't have you go without. You're still going to be loved."
She would scold him, even spank him, he said, then bake his favorite cake: "Guilt trip on top of a guilt trip."
When he went into law enforcement, she'd call on him to mentor someone she met. Sometimes, he said, it frustrated him to watch her pour so much of herself into others.
Her life wasn't just about her. It was about her community, he said, and what she felt was right.
When drug problems arose in the Lincoln Highlands neighborhood in Safety Harbor, Mrs. Williams fought it — even when her family begged her to stay safe.
"She'd say, 'I don't care if they do know I'm the rat or I'm the snitch,' " Eric Williams said.
A 1992 story in the Tampa Bay Times outlined the effort: In the 50-home neighborhood, residents worked with local authorities and let them use their homes as surveillance posts to crack down on drug dealers.
Her attitude, her friends and family remembered, was infectious.
"She had a formal education of high school, but she was post-doctorate in life," said longtime family friend and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Raymond O. Gross.
Born and raised in Clearwater, Mrs. Williams attended Pinellas High School, her son said. There, she met her future husband, McArthur Williams. Several years older than her, he asked her parents' permission to court her.
They were married for more than 45 years, her son said.
She worked as a housekeeper and took care of children before finding her passion with volunteering.
To show the community's thanks, the family center renamed itself after her a year before she died. The center's board asked her permission. She was surprised, but never pretentious.
"She never wrote a check for them," Gross said. "She just gave of herself."
To say her own thanks, Mrs. Williams gave away sweet potato pies. She made them for the center and gave them to deputies, Gross recalled. She brought them to him at the courthouse, persevering through the bailiffs' inspections.
Years ago, Mrs. Williams solicited a donation from Gross's former law partner, Louis Kwall, to make and give away sweet potato pies.
"A short time later, Louis received a receipt at the office for 'Kwall pies' for donation," Gross remembered, laughing.
When her health deteriorated, Mrs. Williams sat in the kitchen and instructed others how to bake them. Her friends peeled pounds and pounds of sweet potatoes.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.