TARPON SPRINGS — Lisa Hassell was a teacher. Though her classroom was a church and not a public school, "Miss Lisa" used every teacher's trick to get her students' attention, plus an entire manual of tactics she invented, things no one else could have pulled off.
Mrs. Hassell, an ordained minister in charge of up to 150 children at Bayside Community Church in Safety Harbor, could get scores of kids quiet by counting down to zero, speaking very softly or just standing there.
She knew all their names. Any child who had a birthday could count on a card from Miss Lisa with a stick of Juicy Fruit gum inside.
She wanted to give children an early start, to implant an understanding of Jesus in them. She organized twice-weekly children's programs at Bayside and staged huge events each year with part-time help and volunteers.
Mrs. Hassell, a spiritual leader who made the most of a short life, died Saturday of cancer. She was 45.
Asked why Bayside grew from 300 members in 1998 to 950 today, the Rev. Tom Bates said, "A lot of it has to do with Lisa and her children's ministries."
She loved simple pleasures. A romantic at heart, Mrs. Hassell lit sweet-scented candles and put on the silky-voiced Luther Vandross to relax. A blue-eyed blond, she believed in looking her best at all times. She practiced that belief with a triathlete's fitness regimen, classy but affordable jewelry, flip-flops that showed off her pedicure and T-shirts with the sleeves turned up just so.
Mrs. Hassell knew what she wanted and why, and sought those who could help the kids at Bayside.
"She would say, 'How would you like to get involved and do something that would be meaningful for the children that I think you would be really, really good at?' " her sister, Molli Craddock, said. "She had a way of making you feel like you're the only person who could do this, that you're her best friend and you really want to do this. It's not guilt, but it's kind of like, 'She has chosen me and I want to pull this off.' "
Lisa Clark grew up in Dayton, Ohio. She met Byron Hassell, her future husband, at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. They married in 1986. The couple moved to Tarpon Springs in 1991. He set up a veterinary practice in Clearwater. The couple had two daughters.
In May 2008, before she finished her ordination through the Church of God, Mrs. Hassell began having trouble with her speech. Doctors diagnosed brain cancer and gave her between six months and two years to live. She rallied and declined. Children sent get-well cards with sticks of gum inside.
Her church may have found a place to put the children she attracted. Ground breaking on the Lisa Hassell Children's Center, a two-story building on church property with a corkscrew slide between floors, is expected in June.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.