PLANT CITY — For many Strawberry Festival regulars Barbara Caccamisi was the festival.
She ran the St. Clement Catholic Church strawberry shortcake booth for 16 years. Each fall and winter she pleaded with parishioners to help out behind the scenes.
She appeared on television morning shows, prodding viewers to attend the 11-day gala, and ran the shortcake-eating contest, also sponsored by St. Clement.
"She always had a smile," festival general manager Paul Davis said. "She was happy. She was fun. She was synonymous with the Strawberry Festival."
Caccamisi won't be attending this year's festival, though.
After a long battle with cancer, she died in August at the age of 66.
Paul Hetrick and Kevin McFaul will take up the reins in her absence. Both say the booth won't be the same.
A makeshift memorial has been erected in her honor just inside the booth. It's covered with photos from past festivals.
"She was perfection," from her attention to detail to her pressed white shirt, red jacket and coiffed silvery blond hair, McFaul, 50, said.
"Paul and I are doing what it took one woman, Barbara, to do," he continued. "She was like Patton going into war, but a great-looking Patton and a wonderful war."
Even when sick with cancer, Caccamisi was up to the task, which was fortunate because the behind-the-scenes effort is a monster. It requires more than six months of planning, from decorating and setting up the booth to coordinating the army of volunteers and ordering gallons of whipped topping and hundreds of flats of strawberries.
Each morning and afternoon during the festival, some 35 St. Clement volunteers would catch a bus from the church parking lot to the festival grounds. When they arrived, Caccamisi was often waiting with last-minute instructions.
The booth specializes in make-your-own strawberry shortcake. Part of Caccamisi's job was to make sure the four industrial-sized mixers kept churning out whipped topping and the bowls of macerated strawberries remained piled high.
Each volunteer wears dark pants, a pressed white shirt, a red or green apron and white newsboy cap. The women wear white ribbons in place of the cap.
Always in the background, Caccamisi hovered, keeping an eye on all of it.
Morning TV reporters would show up and she would seamlessly break away to offer a quip and a smile or demonstrate how to build the perfect strawberry shortcake.
"There wasn't much that could ruffle Barbara's feathers," McFaul said.
The work paid off handsomely.
"The bishop likes to say, this is a church built on strawberry shortcake," Hetrick, 55, said. "And he's not far off."
Last year, the shortcake booth produced $155,000 for St. Clement.
Past proceeds helped pay for construction of the main sanctuary and the previous sanctuary, now a multi-purpose room.
The booth started operating in 1974. Along the way came highs and lows. About 20 years ago, before Caccamisi took charge, the booth struggled.
"We slipped a little out there, watching our quality," Hetrick said. Strawberry Festival officials advised the volunteers to "get their act together."
Caccamisi, with her eye for detail, helped turn things around.
Tammi Higgins, Caccamisi's daughter, said her mother was fiercely loyal to St. Clement and the festival. She was a retired office manager and lifelong Plant City resident.
Last year, while struggling with cancer, she underwent radiation treatments in the morning at South Florida Baptist Hospital then showed up in the afternoons at the festival. While there, she wore a pump that sent chemotherapy drugs into her body.
Yet only a handful of folks knew she was sick.
"She was a very private person," said Higgins, 46, also of Plant City.
But even when sick, her thoughts were about the festival.
"This was her project," Higgins said. "She didn't work a full-time job and devoted all of her time to the Strawberry Festival. She was very dedicated to the church and felt her time was best served working for the church."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.