TAMPA — Mary E. Henry, a head checker at a Winn-Dixie for many years and known as "Big Mary" to friends, family and co-workers, died Friday. We'd tell you her age, but Mrs. Henry clearly would not want that.
She said so in her will, in which she forbade her family from publishing her age (or her middle name) in an obituary. She also left instructions for a photo: "one of those glamor shots," Mrs. Henry told her daughter.
We don't think she'd mind if we told you that she was a clerk typist in 1942 for Tampa Ship Repair when she met Bill Henry, who was 12 years her senior. "My husband and I practically lived on the dance floor when we were dating," Mrs. Henry says in University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino's 2001 book, Hillsborough County Goes to War. Bill Henry died in 1963.
Big Mary was an intensely social woman, and the possessor of what her pastor called "a guttural belly laugh, full blast."
"She weighed over 300 pounds, she was massive," said Frank Winchester, 64, who despite her first name is the daughter of one of Big Mary's best friends. "That woman was a pistol. She was kind of the life of the party. Very boisterous and loud. She was definitely not a wallflower.
"She thought she was God's gift to men,'' Winchester added.
Mrs. Henry worked at a Quick Chek on Bay-to-Bay Boulevard and a Winn-Dixie on Kennedy Boulevard, well before barcode scanners, for a total of 23 years.
"The way she loved people and talked to people, it's a wonder your groceries ever got checked out," said daughter Mary Alice Edgar, 64.
She made elaborate introductions at parties and wrote letters to famous people. She wrote to Bill Clinton because he was handsome, to George W. and Laura Bush because they had old-fashioned values, and to Oliver North because he was a great American, her daughter said.
She wrote Pope John Paul II because they both had cervical arthritis and had to wear neck braces. The pontiff replied.
Mrs. Henry spent the first five years of her life in Riviera Beach, but moved to a Tennessee orphanage after tuberculosis claimed the lives of both parents.
Mrs. Henry was "never bitter about growing up in an orphanage or being widowed at an early age," her daughter said.
The day before she died at John Knox Village, her daughter read aloud from the newspaper. She chose a "Dear Abby" column: "Men find plenty to love in big, beautiful women."
During her memorial service Sunday, pastor John Meisenbach posed a question to a packed house at New Beginnings Christian Church.
"It was an ad lib," Meisenbach said. "As I recall the question, I said, 'How many men here were Mary's boyfriends?'
"A whole bunch of hands went up, including mine."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.