BELLEAIR — For about 15 years, Jackie Blake and the firefighters at Belleair Bluffs Station 43 lived almost like relatives. The plump and talkative woman the crews called "Mom" brought them spaghetti and meatballs cooked using her mother's Croatian recipe, stuffed peppers and chocolate chip cookies.
She gave them cards on birthdays and anniversaries, always including a $1 scratchoff lottery ticket.
They invited her to the firehouse for dinner. They had to rush out if an emergency call came in, but when they returned, they found their food wrapped and still warm.
Little by little, the firefighters and Belleair police learned to look beneath Mrs. Blake's chirpy demeanor for areas of concern. When she struggled to pay the rent, they found a safe apartment she could afford and helped her move.
Then her health slipped a notch. She could no longer drive her Ford Taurus, which was recognizable for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flags on each side.
At the same time, the city decided to contract with Largo to run its fire services. Some of the firefighters retired or went to other stations. A makeshift family had scattered.
But the firefighters of Station 43 stayed in touch with their firehouse mom, and she with them.
The relationship began in the early 1980s when Belleair Bluffs lieutenant firefighter Chuck Barlet met Mrs. Blake at the Belleair Food Mart. Characteristically, she was buying a Play 4 lottery ticket.
He was in uniform. They struck up a conversation. The next day she came to the station bearing a tray of fresh-baked cookies. She also began to drop in on the Belleair Police Department.
"Between the police and the Fire Department, she always considered us her boys," said Belleair police Chief Thomas Edwards.
Eventually, the firefighters asked her to be their "station mom." They came to understand that she was married but long separated; that she struggled to pay rent and buy food; that she had diabetes and other health problems. As best they could, they took care of her.
Jackie Kezerle was born in Georgetown, Ill. At 20, she and a girlfriend moved to Florida.
She married David Blake, who worked in heating and air conditioning. They had three daughters in three years.
She made up a holiday, "Happy Daughters' Day," and took her children to theme parks or Weeki Wachee every third Sunday in July.
She ran a day care service out of her Largo home for 37 years.
Then she separated from her husband. The day care house was foreclosed on and she moved to Belleair, Barlet said. She remained involved with her Unity Church in Clearwater, cooking huge lunches and taking the leftovers to police and fire stations who were now her neighbors. She knew who worked each shift, 24 hours on and 48 off.
" 'A' shift likes chocolate cake. 'B' wants fruit and cheese," she told the Belleair Bee in 2008. " 'C' shift will eat anything I bring."
Station 43 insisted on returning the favor, said firefighter Macho Liberti, 34.
"We said, 'Hey, Jackie, you've been coming here for so long you're family now. Sit down here at the table and eat dinner with us.' "
If she didn't answer a phone call, they knocked on her door.
The ties deepened. She told them she always prayed when she heard a siren go by. In parting, she preferred "I love you" to goodbye.
Several years ago, the firefighters surprised her by calling Bay News 9 and nominating her for an "everyday hero" award. A camera crew showed up at the station.
"For once, she was speechless," said Barlet, 54, who is now retired.
But problems were mounting. She lived on Social Security and food stamps. Then the government found out a daughter was helping her with rent — and rescinded the food stamps.
Doctors removed a kidney. She began to rely on a walker.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Blake kept up a constant patter of conversation.
"But in between the sentences, you knew something was wrong," Barlet said.
The clouds parted briefly about four years ago when Mrs. Blake hit the Play 4 with the same numbers she had always used: 1-1-1-1. Barlet drove her to Tampa to collect $5,000. She used the money to pay doctor bills.
In the meantime, police Chief Edwards found an apartment near the police station.
When Largo Fire Rescue took over Station 43 in 2009, some of the faces changed, but Mrs. Blake still made it by the Fire Department and Police Department with cookies and brownies.
"When she couldn't get out of the car, she'd pull up at the back door and toot the horn," Edwards said.
Her health worsened in recent months. Hip-replacement surgery led to an infection, her family said.
Mrs. Blake died Oct. 22 at Morton Plant Hospital. She was 75.
Engine 43 showed up at her memorial service Oct. 24 at Unity Church. Firefighters wore dress uniforms in honor of their longtime firehouse mom.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248.