ST. PETERSBURG — From 1980 until just a few years ago, Vera Noble motivated her fellow church members by example. She set up the Christian education program at First Baptist Institutional and its vacation Bible school, trained teachers and served as Florida moderator of the American Baptist Churches of the South.
She had been a close friend of civil rights activist Dorothy Height, who was a 40-year president of the National Council of Negro Women and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mrs. Noble believed in her mission, which centered on Christian education for young people, and she inspired belief in others.
"She had her way," said the Rev. Wayne Thompson, 64, First Baptist Institutional's pastor. "She would get you to do it if you said you couldn't do it. She would tell you you could do it, and then she would persuade you to do it."
Her local church work began in her mid 60s after she worked for the federal government in Philadelphia, raised a family and founded a summer camp in the Poconos for inner-city children.
"She was soft spoken and assertive," said Gilbert Noble, 66, her son. "She believed in grooming younger people."
When the Rev. Thompson joined First Baptist Institutional in 1983, his first pastorate, Mrs. Noble told him he belonged in the job and prayed alongside him.
She was born Vera McLeod in Adel, Ga., in 1916, the eldest of seven children. Mrs. Noble moved to St. Petersburg in the late 1920s, when the city was highly segregated and getting more so. Her father, contractor H.D. McLeod, and his wife, Mabel, found a home at 1944 12th Ave. S.
Even a city that was building racial barriers stood as an improvement over the one they left behind. Schools in Adel did not accept black children, Mrs. Noble's family said. She started public school in St. Petersburg two years older than most of her classmates.
As a teenager and at her mother's request, she took over parenting duties for the youngest three siblings — brother Tarra and sisters Elizabeth and Rose.
She graduated as the valedictorian of Gibbs High's class of 1936, and entered Bethune-Cookman College (now Bethune-Cookman University). The bright student caught the eye of Mary McLeod Bethune, the school's founder, who befriended her.
After graduating, Mrs. Noble moved to Washington, D.C. At a dance she met Clifford Noble, a Pullman porter who had seen the country. They married in 1946 and lived in Philadelphia, where she directed Sunday school programs at Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Two of her youngest siblings, Tarra McLeod and Rose Walker, followed their de facto second mother to Philadelphia.
For many years, Mrs. Noble processed claims for the Social Security Administration. Clifford Noble died in 1975. Mrs. Noble retired to St. Petersburg in 1980 to care for her mother. Years later, Tarra and Rose left Philadelphia, as well.
All three of the youngest siblings — Tarra, Rose and Elizabeth — died within 10 days of one another in 2008, all of natural causes. The other three siblings had died previously.
"She never really recovered," said son Gilbert Noble. "It was one of the most destructive things, emotionally and psychologically, in her life."
Her family noticed an advancing dementia over the next year and moved her to an assisted living center.
Mrs. Noble died Tuesday after an illness. She was 97.
She remains an inspirational figure to those who crossed paths with her. Among the mementoes the family has retrieved since her death was a statement by Dorothy Height at Mrs. Noble's 90th birthday in 2006.
"As one of Mary McLeod Bethune's favorite daughters, you exemplify the highest ideals of womanhood, service and achievement for which the National Council of Negro Women was founded," Height wrote. "There are no words to fully express appreciation for you."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.