ST. PETERSBURG — Mildred Sawyer watched her elementary students for more than their behavior or whether they knew the answers to her questions.
She noticed which ones seemed hungry or wore the same clothes every day. If they lacked food or clothes, she gave them what they needed out of her own pocket.
Mrs. Sawyer looked after parents, too. If they had taken the bus to parent-teacher conferences or to see their children in a school play, she would drive them home.
Everyone who crossed her path was a potential candidate for help. If she saw a woman in a housekeeper's uniform waiting for a bus in the rain, she pulled up with her two-toned blue Cadillac and opened a door.
Mrs. Sawyer, who held students to high standards for 35 years and earned their undying admiration, died Monday at a nursing home. She was 92.
"She was the most loving, stern, inspiring person I've ever known," said Jack Fletcher, 64, a St. Petersburg firefighter who had Mrs. Sawyer in the fifth grade at Perkins Elementary. "I was in love with Mrs. Sawyer. I would have married her if I could, I was so enthralled with her."
Mrs. Sawyer taught at 16th Street (now John Hopkins) and Perkins elementary schools before being transferred to Shore Acres Elementary in 1970, at the start of court-ordered integration. Within a week or so, she had set up a carpooling arrangement with fellow teacher Mary Styles.
At the time, Styles, a divorced mother of three, could barely pay the mortgage. "There were times when my car needed work and I didn't have the money to get it repaired," said Styles, 74. "She would say, 'Don't worry, I have a car.' I would try to give her gas money and she wouldn't take it."
In class, she was a stickler for grammar and diction. On the word "ask," for example, she reminded her students to "start with the A-S and then add the K."
"If you were talking too long or speaking incorrectly, she would just give you a look," said Barbara Bethel, 72, a retired district supervisor for Hillsborough County schools and Mrs. Sawyer's daughter.
Teachers, students and their families often knew each other. "They were all friends," said the Rev. Dr. Wayne Thompson, 63, a student at 16th Street, "so you couldn't get by with doing bad stuff at school because they were friends with your parents."
Mildred Elizabeth Wallace was born in Georgia on Oct. 28, 1921, but grew up in Clearwater. She graduated from Florida A&M University.
Husbands Jimmy Smith and James Sawyer both died. Nonetheless a community surrounded her, made up by those she had befriended or taught.
"She had a strong sense of purpose and gave invaluable advice," said granddaughter Ingrid Bethel, 45, a legal studies professor. "Her purpose was to love, to serve her community and God. I think that's probably the highest order of living according to Granny."
Mrs. Sawyer retired in 1985. She subbed for Pinellas County schools and also co-chaired the minority development committee of the American Cancer Society.
Sometimes she fretted about the house or the yard, or the rising water that might come off Lake Maggiore with a hurricane. She called Fletcher or the Rev. Thompson for some extra help. "When she found out I was a fireman, she had my number on speed dial," said Fletcher, who put down sand bags.
"If she couldn't find me, she'd find him," Thompson said. "And if she couldn't find him, she'd find me."
She relaxed with two dogs and two cats, Jackie Collins novels and crossword puzzles, USA Today and tbt*, the Oprah Winfrey Network and David Letterman.
Mrs. Sawyer stayed with her daughter in recent months, then at a nursing home. She was fading Sunday night — Oct. 27 — as her daughter and granddaughter kept her company.
"We kept saying, 'Your birthday is coming at midnight,' " said Ingrid Bethel. They hung balloons around her door and decorated the room.
Mrs. Sawyer was awake at midnight. She teased her granddaughter a little. "It was her last rally," Ingrid Bethel said.
"We sang Happy Birthday. She said a little prayer. We sang some more, and she closed her eyes."
The Rev. Thompson, her former student, will deliver her eulogy on Saturday.