ST. PETERSBURG — Frances Wilson loved to read. History, archaeology, mysteries.
Romance, literature, adventure.
She read incredibly fast. Her family estimated her speed at about one page per black olive plucked from an ever-present jar.
Her husband, furniture store owner Ralph Wilson, once saw her reading and snatched the book away.
"What was on the last page you read?" he demanded. "You can't possibly remember."
He was wrong. Mrs. Wilson calmly recounted the page from memory. Ralph never challenged her comprehension again.
An only child reared by her mother, Mrs. Wilson spent most of her life in St. Petersburg. By the third grade, she was checking out as many as nine books a week from the Mirror Lake Library. She had to borrow library cards from her mother and grandmother because the library limited customers to three books a week.
The reading anchored and nourished her, as did her Southern roots. She could trace her family to the Confederacy.
She graduated from St. Pete High at 16 and married Ralph Wilson two years later. They held the ceremony in her mother's Old Northeast home.
They bought a home in Driftwood, where their four children grew up. Her husband taught her to fish and dig for scallops. She taught her children grammar, respect for elders and consistency.
After her mother died in 1980, the couple moved back into the home in the Old Northeast.
Mrs. Wilson played the piano expertly, often volunteering her talents to local organizations and the psychiatric ward at St. Anthony's Hospital. She especially enjoyed playing Dixie.
Ralph Wilson died in 1996, a loss Mrs. Wilson took hard.
Mrs. Wilson continued to frequent used-book stores "two to three times a week, for years," said Denise Morris, who owns Wilson's Book World with her husband, Jeff.
Customers came to recognize the trademark "FW" initials on the title pages of books she had read and returned, along with grades ranging from "Excellent +++" to "So-so."
Like the roots of a tree, her interests thickened and divided. She contributed to causes she had learned about: Indians. Animal rights. Wolves. Whales.
On Saturday, Mrs. Wilson and friends watched the Moscow Ballet perform The Nutcracker, then toured Snell Isle to look at lights.
Afterward, she invited the group inside to see her Christmas tree. As the guests were about to depart, Mrs. Wilson began a rant about airlines that charge extra for carry-on items — an annoyance for book lovers.
Mrs. Wilson collapsed in the middle of the story. She died within minutes in the home where she and her husband had married 79 years earlier. Mrs. Wilson was 86.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.