Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

Longtime director Evelyn Oszmianski helped shape the Strawberry Festival

Times Staff Writer

PLANT CITY — Evelyn Oszmianski chose motherhood over a career, had dinner on the table every evening and taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church.

She also was a leader. She was one of the first women to chair the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce and to direct the Florida Strawberry Festival. She served as president of the Strawberry Ball, an event she and her husband, Joseph, decorated like no one else.

Mrs. Oszmianski, who directed the Strawberry Festival for 30 years, died Friday at a Lakeland nursing home, where she had lived since doctors discovered a brain tumor a year ago. She was 93.

"She was very influential in the development of our festival," said Bill Vernon, 85, a director emeritus as was Mrs. Oszmianski. "She was a keynoter, no doubt about it."

Mrs. Oszmianski assumed leadership of the festival in the 1970s, her family said. At one time, she sat on committees with Plant City luminaries such as businessman Joe E. Newsome and strawberry grower Roy Parke.

In the early days, the grand stage that hosted the Charlie Daniels Band in early March was a low platform off the former Plant City High School football field. But under Mrs. Oszmianski's watch, performers such as Garth Brooks, the Oak Ridge Boys and a young Billy Ray Cyrus found an important audience as country music and the festival grew together.

Mrs. Oszmianski was born in Hazelhurst, Ga., and moved to the Turkey Creek area at age 1. She graduated from Turkey Creek High School, and was working at a McCrory's dime store when someone arranged a blind date with an Army Air Corps man named Joseph Oszmianski.

"They couldn't stand each other, is what they told us," said Linda Jo McDonald, her daughter. But soon they were married.

Mrs. Oszmianski threw herself into motherhood, volunteered as a pink lady at South Florida Baptist Hospital, and served as president of her American Legion Auxiliary post. When holidays approached, she set the table two days in advance. There was a playful side as well. She taught her children how to cheat at cards, such as stashing away extra cards during gin rummy games.

For several years, she and Joseph decorated an exhibit hall into the setting for the Strawberry Ball, a formal affair that packed in more than 600 people the last week in January. They picked their colors and went to work. One year they chose blue and silver, and hung stars from the ceiling.

"It just seemed so special whenever they did it," said Ellany Johnson, an office manager at the Strawberry Festival. "It was such a transformation, from just a room to a beautiful ballroom."

Joseph Oszmianski died in 1995. About a decade ago, Mrs. Oszmianski moved to the Estates at Carpenters, a Lakeland retirement home. A year ago she moved to the Manor, a related nursing facility.

"She was ready to go see Jesus and see my dad," said McDonald, 63. "That made it easier for us."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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