TAMPA — Dottie Berger MacKinnon won countless accolades in the months leading up to her death for her tireless work on behalf of abused and neglected children.
Friends and family celebrated her devotion to that cause, her love for her 15 grandchildren, the upbeat manner in which she stared down cancer twice and the way she so often put others before herself.
"We don't have to build Dottie up in death," said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, a friend of Mrs. Berger MacKinnon and her husband, Sandy MacKinnon. "Her life and service to the community speaks for itself."
Hundreds filed Thursday afternoon into St. John's Episcopal Church in South Tampa to pay tribute to Mrs. Berger MacKinnon, 71, who died Sunday after a more than three-year battle with bile duct cancer that doctors warned would claim her much sooner. She had previously fought breast cancer a dozen years earlier, never taking a break from her advocacy for children.
Family members, many from her native Kentucky, carried sunflowers, her favorite.
In the audience were mayors of Tampa past and present, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, county commissioners, City Council members, judges and a host of other public figures.
Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was once one of them, serving a term on the Hillsborough County Commission from 1994 to 1998.
That barely rated a mention Thursday as friends remembered the woman who in the 1990s co-founded the Joshua House and Friends of the Joshua House, the former a haven for abused and neglected children in Lutz.
In the past decade, she led efforts to help foster children, in part by seeking to keep siblings removed from abusive homes together, as a central figure in the formation of the Kids Charity of Tampa Bay. Fundraising ultimately led to the creation of a 60-bed shelter on Lithia Pinecrest Road called A Kid's Place.
"She saw the gaps in the system and she chose to make us different in Hillsborough County," Gee said. "And it became her life's work. She had an unbridled passion for children. She translated that love into an unbridled zeal to protect and to foster the most vulnerable in our community."
Gee and Bondi, who regularly visited Mrs. Berger MacKinnon in her final weeks, recalled someone who had no problem asking for money to help support her causes. She didn't just ask once, Gee said, even if you had given before.
Bondi said she set an example for others in her dedication to her causes but also in her unconditional and engaged friendship, even as she battled illness.
"Dottie not only gave of herself, but she inspired others," said Bondi, who informed those in attendance that Mrs. Berger MacKinnon will be receiving one more honor, as Gov. Rick Scott will name her to the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.
Of course, she adored her own family and the grandchildren, who called her Nana. Even as the prognosis grew grim, she painted her toenails blue to impress the little ones, said friend Cathy Unruh. When the end came near, Unruh said, her friend got her hair done, stylish until the end.
Unruh said Mrs. Berger MacKinnon had a regular farewell when parting from friends. She offered it as a closing to Thursday's memorial service.
"Love you guys. God bless," she said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.