PALM HARBOR — Lillian Washabau thrived in the spotlight. As the wife of a Ford Motor Co. executive, she hosted seven-course dinner parties for foreign dignitaries, whom she liked to disarm with a grade-school trick.
"She would be in the middle of a serious conversation with someone," said Russel Engle, Mrs. Washabau's son. "Then she would step back with a twinkle in her eye and say, 'You want to see something special?' "
Then the woman who dressed like a fashion model — lots of jewelry and bright colors that stopped just short of loud — would cause her entire scalp to move back and forth by a couple of inches, undermining the hair she had so carefully arranged.
"It would crack you up," said Engle, 64.
Mrs. Washabau died at home on Feb. 3, of lung cancer. She was 85 and had lived in Palm Harbor since 1983.
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A farmer's daughter, she grew up in an area of North Dakota where corn stalks outnumbered people by several hundred to one. She met Frank Engle, a rising brainiac for Ford, while working as an executive secretary in Washington, D.C.
Frank Engle died in 1988. A few years later, as president of a neighborhood welcome group, she met an incoming Palm Harbor neighbor named Claude Washabau. They married in 1994.
"I don't think I belonged to an organization that she didn't become president of at one point," said Betty Coleman, 87, a friend of 20 years. Among the organizations she led were the Detroit chapter of the League of Women Voters, the Francis Wilson Playhouse in Clearwater, and the All Children's Hospital Guild in Palm Harbor.
She played several roles at Francis Wilson, most recently an accused witch in The Crucible.
She was equally active away from the limelight, and could be counted on to visit friends in hospitals. "She never stayed too long," Coleman said. "She just wanted you to know she was thinking about you."
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In November, Mrs. Washabau's daughter, Carolyn Smith, a hospice counselor, started a support group for adult daughters who have lost their mothers.
The next day, Mrs. Washabau, who never smoked, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.
Smith found took a leave of absence. Now back on the job, she finds herself in the position of the people she counsels.
"It's important to allow yourself to feel all that you are feeling, and to realize that you are really fragile in grief," said Smith, 55.
She thinks about the mother who encouraged her independence, and grieves the loss.
So does her brother, documentary film director Harrison Engle. "She was a star," Engle said. "Everybody paid attention."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.