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Despite the weather, a full house for Phyllis Busansky

TAMPA — The hundreds of guests who waded through a morning rain Friday to memorialize Hillsborough elections supervisor Phyllis Busansky were greeted at the door by reggae music.

"I didn't think it fit the occasion," said Toni Beddingfield, a close friend. "But then I thought, 'It's so Phyllis.' This is her music. It's filled with so much life and youth. That's what Phyllis was like."

Far from a somber affair, Friday's memorial at Busansky's synagogue, Congregation Schaarai Zedek, was filled with smiles, laughter and hugs.

More than 900 people who knew her by the many roles she played in her 72 years — wife, mother, friend, county commissioner, elections supervisor, political ally or foe — swapped stories about a woman described as a life force like no other.

"She loved us all, she really loved us all. She was absolutely sincere in that," said Jeannie McGuire, Busansky's friend for 40 years. "She wanted us to love each other, and she would connect us."

Busansky died of natural causes earlier this week while attending a conference for elections supervisors in St. Augustine. Her rabbi, Richard Birnholz, said her death left the community "shocked and stunned beyond words."

A long list of community and state leaders joined her husband, Sheldon, sons Edward and Alex and daughter Rebecca in remembering Busansky. They included Gov. Charlie Crist, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, several Hillsborough county commissioners and City Council members, County Clerk Pat Frank, County Administrator Pat Bean and former Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, who Busansky defeated in November.

Johnson sat quietly as Birnholz explained why he made an exception and decided to endorse Busansky in her race last fall.

"I knew that if we have any chance of getting out of the mess that had become the elections office, Phyllis has to be there to do it," Birnholz said. "Because she had no other agenda than to do that job and to do the job right."

It was a passing reference to politics in a day dominated by other memories.

The audience laughed as her son, Alex, recalled a mother who helped her children build a bonfire while her husband was still at work.

Or let the kids start a vegetable store on the front porch, even though they sold the goods for less than what she paid. Or the time she went to Alex's job interview because he was away at college.

"There are so many stories I want to remember forever," Alex said. "All I had hoped for, and ever wanted, was just more of Mom."

Her daughter, Rebecca, read from a letter written by a woman who said Busansky helped her go to college.

"She saw in me the potential for success and her support was critical in my life," said Rebecca, quoting from the letter. "Acting as a committee of one person, she came to my high school on a mission to help students with little except for academic promise."

Steve Otto, a Tampa Tribune columnist and longtime friend, described Busansky as a "tornado with hair" who, with her tireless energy and boundless optimism changed the community forever by helping the disenfranchised. A health care program for the poor that she helped pass as a commissioner in the 1990s is still considered a national model.

Some who say they are interested in applying for Busansky's $132,000 job attended the memorial. Gov. Crist, the man who will decide, said Thursday he will consider all candidates, regardless of party affiliation.

He's a Republican. Busansky was a Democrat. So far, the only official applicant is David Agliano, the owner of the Valencia Gardens restaurant.

Whoever Crist taps will replace someone who has become a community icon. On July 15, the County Commission is expected to approve the renaming of the county's center on W Spruce Street as the Phyllis H. Busansky Westshore Senior Center.

"She touched so many lives," Alex Busansky said. "It was a fabulous life."

Times staff writer Kim Wimath contributed to this story.

Despite the weather, a full house for Phyllis Busansky 06/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:28pm]
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