TAMPA — When Tampa police took 90 minutes to respond to a burglary at her home in Palma Ceia, Nonita Cuesta Henson was angry at first.
The officer explained that he had been busy disarming a man with a long knife in Temple Terrace. He showed her the knife.
This was in the late 1960s, when officers made only $5,000 a year and had to buy their own guns and holsters. So Mrs. Henson founded the Citizens Alert Police Support Committee and lobbied City Hall for more officers and higher salaries.
Her efforts paid off. So did nearly every endeavor she ever undertook. Mrs. Henson — who was involved in scores of Tampa organizations and charities — died on Friday of Alzheimer's disease. She was 84.
"She was probably one of the most outstanding civic activists in the city of Tampa's history," said Jan Platt, a former Hillsborough County commissioner and a member of Citizens Alert. "She would gather the facts and present them to the people who would make a difference."
Former Mayor Dick Greco remembers Mrs. Henson as an effective leader, particularly on police matters.
"She loved the place and loved many aspects of what the city of Tampa was about, and police was one of them," said Greco.
Her Citizens Alert group also monitored courtrooms and kept attendance records on judges — several of whom were not re-elected after Citizens Alert reported their absenteeism to the public.
The granddaughter of Angel de LaMadrid Cuesta, who founded Cuesta Rey Cigars in 1884, Mrs. Henson spent several years of her childhood in Havana.
Asthma, poor vision and a heart murmur kept her out of school even after the family moved to Tampa in 1935. She entered Plant High School in her junior year.
In college, her vision improved. She raced through her 20s, studying photography in Vermont and modeling in New York.
She went on a blind date with Bill Henson, a naval officer who wanted to be a lawyer and understood her passions — mysteries, historical novels and digging beneath the surface of things. They married and had two kids.
She served on numerous boards — everything from the Tampa Philharmonic to Tampa General Hospital. She also founded an Easter Seal Guild in Hillsborough County and co-founded the Tampa Historical Society. She created a cookbook for people with disabilities. She did all that while running a store, Nonita's Accessory Loft, for the better part of 20 years.
"My mother was probably ADD," said her son, Kirk Henson, 51. "She could throw a lot of balls up in the air, and somehow they all came down where they were supposed to."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.