TAMPA — Tampa philanthropist and volunteer Mary Lee Farrior went to lunch Thursday at the Florida State Fair to thank Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet for granting $350,000 to Mary Lee's House.
Instead, officials honored Farrior when the Tampa Metro Civitan Club named her its Citizen of the Year for creating Mary Lee's House to consolidate child abuse assessment, counseling, prevention and forensics services.
In the five years since the 30,000-square-foot facility opened at 2806 N Armenia Ave., more than 12,000 kids have been helped.
"We hope the first floor — Healthy Start Coalition, Success for Kids and Families and the Crisis Center — will put the second floor — the Children's Advocacy Center and the Child Protection Team —out of business," said one of her sons, Rex Farrior.
The five agencies focusing on abused and neglected children have made the medical and legal process less traumatic since Farrior seeded the center with a $1 million contribution in 2008.
"She loves Gators, God and country," said restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, the 2011 recipient in the surprise presentation. "But her real love is children. She would have had 10 but stopped at four sons."
Grandson J.R. Farrior, 11, spoke from experience. "She always takes time out to go to my lacrosse games," he said. Several of her 10 grandchildren stayed hidden until after the announcement.
The Atlanta native moved to Tampa in 1958 and has been an instrumental donor and volunteer for the Junior League of Tampa, the Children's Home and the Spring of Tampa Bay.
Farrior, 76, is most likely to be spotted at a football game, checking the New York Yankees batting order or hosting a pretend tea party with youngsters at Mary Lee's House. Sometimes Tiger, her Pomeranian, comes along.
Hillsborough County School Board member Candy Olson, a member of the original Mary Lee's House board of directors, admires Farrior's ethics.
"She would never ask anyone to do anything she wouldn't do herself," Olson said.
Previous recipients — "giants in the community," said Gonzmart — sat in a row facing 825 easily-recognizable faces who ducked out of business and government offices to attend the fair's opening day ritual, the Governor's Day Luncheon.
Recent past Citizens of the Year have included retired business executive John Sykes, developer Al Austin and Dottie Berger MacKinnon, the late children's advocate.