ST. PETERSBURG — Betty Wilhelm had brains and looks, was happily married and drank deeply of the outdoors. She was an accomplished pianist and dancer, and needed little provocation to break into a song or dance, especially at parties.
She might have been the only member of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club to have captured alligators barehanded. She seemed to live a charmed life, though it turned out different from what she had planned.
Mrs. Wilhelm, a St. Petersburg resident since 1935, died Thursday at Westminster Suncoast, a retirement community. She was 95.
"She was a big believer in, 'This, too, shall pass,' " said her son, John Wilhelm, who credits his mother's support for his journalism career at the St. Petersburg Times and Time magazine. "She really was exceptional that way."
Born Betty Whitfield in the Pittsburgh suburb of North Braddock, Pa., she skipped three grades in school (first, fifth and seventh) and entered Allegheny College at 15. But ripple effects of the 1929 stock market crash forced the star student to leave school after her freshman year.
The family moved to Ocala, where she became friendly with Silver Springs founder Ross Allen, who took her out in a canoe at night to catch alligators. Allen did most of the gator wrestling, but sometimes she helped.
She moved to St. Petersburg and gave piano recitals and danced ballet at the Municipal Pier. She had given thought to performing as a career. Instead, she married John Wilhelm, a celebrated outdoorsman and multitalented musician whose family owned a funeral home, in 1936.
"She was a wonderful wife to him," said longtime friend Pat Baldwin. "He wasn't such an easy person to be a good wife to, because he was center stage all the time."
In 1963, a year after selling the Wilhelm Funeral Home, the family spent a year sailing through the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Grenada. "It was the highlight of our lives," said her son, John, 72.
Retirement plans changed when her husband died in 1979 at 72 of a stroke. Mrs. Wilhelm moved into Bayfront Tower and reached out to friends.
"She added to a party," said Joan Appleyard, a friend at Bayfront Tower. "She was so well liked. She'd laugh and express herself. She enjoyed anything funny."
As she lay bedridden at Westminster Suncoast, her son called twice a day. Out of habit between them, he asked if she had been sailing or dancing since they last spoke.
Often, she said yes.
"I don't know whether I was putting her on," her son said. One recent morning, his mother announced she had been on an excellent sail the night before. Her husband, John, was at the tiller.
"He said to say hello," she added.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.