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Gleaners of Hillsborough County co-founder dies

SEFFNER — Polly Shewfelt was 67, about the age when a lot of people are thinking about slowing down.

Instead, she came up with an idea to help feed poor people in Hillsborough County. For the next eight years, it became the focus of her life.

Mrs. Shewfelt and her husband, Gene, co-founded Gleaners of Hillsborough County, a volunteer group that at one time had about 250 volunteers.

They'd gather fruit and vegetables from area farms, groves and yards. It was produce that would have otherwise just rotted, but Mrs. Shewfelt and her fellow Gleaners scooped it up and donated it to local charities.

"She was the brains behind the Gleaners," Gene Shewfelt said. "I was the hands, but she was the brains."

Mrs. Shewfelt, 80, died of natural causes on Aug. 22.

She lived in the Tampa area her entire life, mostly in rural areas. As a teenager, she rode her bike from her home near where Tampa International Airport now stands all the way to Hillsborough High School.

Her given name was Harriet Magnon, but everyone called her Polly. Her unfailingly optimistic attitude reminded people of Pollyanna.

"She always saw the bright side," her husband said.

She met her husband at a Davis Islands roller skating rink when she was 18.

"She passed within my sight, and I said, 'I'm going to ask that girl to skate with me,' " Gene Shewfelt said. "Right after that, they called a ladies' choice. She was a demure girl so she just sat down. I went over and asked her to skate."

It was love at first sight for both of them, Mr. Shewfelt said, and they remained together ever since.

"At the University of Tampa, on a bench by the river, that's where I asked her to marry me," he said.

She was a student at UT and later worked at Tampa General Hospital as a practical nurse. But she spent most of her adult life as a full-time homemaker and mother to three children.

Mrs. Shewfelt's Christianity was integral to everything she did, her daughter said, and the inspiration for the Gleaners came from a Bible story "She wanted to help the poor and the needy," her daughter Carol O'Brien said. Then Mrs. Shewfelt read a Bible story about someone gleaning in the fields, "and that's where she got the idea," O'Brien said.

The beginnings were modest.

"We had some citrus trees here in our yard, and we'd pick the grapefruits and oranges and donate them to places like the Salvation Army," Gene Shewfelt said.

Thanks to Mrs. Shewfelt's drive and determination, it wasn't long until farmers and merchants were donating surplus produce, and dozens of volunteers were being invited to farms as far away as Hernando County to glean produce from the fields. The Gleaners collected more than a quarter-million pounds of produce in 1999, according to a Times story.

The Shewfelts ran the Gleaners until 2003, when they were both in their mid 70s.

Mrs. Shewfelt had been ailing for some time, but her family has found strength in the faith they shared with her.

"I know where she is now," her husband said, "and I thank God for that."

Besides her husband and daughter Carol O'Brien, Mrs. Shewfelt is survived by her daughter Julie A. Angelopolis.

Marty Clear can be reached at

Gleaners of Hillsborough County co-founder dies 08/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 2:18pm]
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