CULBREATH BAYOU — Lynda Vawter often told a story about one of her earliest impressions of Tampa.
It was 1969 and she had just moved here with her husband, Robert. She had lived a refined life with her family in Ohio, then enjoyed the arts and international culture of Washington, D.C., during her college years.
She and her husband were driving down Florida Avenue. She was looking out of the window, trying to get a feel for her new hometown, when she saw a goat standing on the roof of a house, eating out of the gutter.
She thought that moving to this strange place called Tampa was a huge mistake.
But Mrs. Vawter ended up spending the rest of her life in Tampa. She loved her adopted hometown and through tireless volunteer work, helped it grow from the sleepy 1960s city where goats lived on roofs to the more sophisticated city it is today.
Mrs. Vawter died Feb. 20. She had been battling cancer since she was first diagnosed in the mid 1990s, but remained active until shortly before her death. She was 65.
She met her husband while they were students at George Washington University. She was an honor student, majoring in English literature and minoring in Russian. Before she graduated, the CIA tried to recruit her.
By that time, however, she had her mind set on becoming a wife, mother and homemaker.
Through her volunteer work with the Junior League, she was instrumental in the development of two of Tampa's best-known charitable organizations: Metropolitan Ministries and Ronald McDonald House.
"She organized our volunteer program and trained the volunteers," said Janice Davis, the CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities. "The combination of her experience and her sense of community were invaluable in establishing the Tampa Ronald McDonald House. She had stupendous leadership qualities."
Her charismatic personality had a lot to do with her success as a community leader, Davis said.
"She was just very skilled at being a human being," Davis said. "When I talked to her, I always felt that she was listening very, very intently."
Mrs. Vawter could wield an amazing sense of humor, Davis said, but she was at the same time very determined and low-key.
Other than her family, community and church — she was a longtime active member of St. John Episcopal Church — her other passion was sailing. She often spent weekends sailing with her husband and children, and she helped form a group called Mainsheet Mamas that taught women to sail at the Tampa Yacht Club.
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer about 15 years ago, her husband retired at age 56. Even though the prognosis was good, he wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.
They sailed regularly around Florida in the cooler months, and they summered at their second home in Maine, where Mrs. Vawter volunteered at the botanical gardens.
"My father-in law retired at age 56," said Clarke Hobby, who is married to the former Laura Vawter. "He gave up a very successful law practice to be with her. Because he did that, they had a lot of quality time together, and they made the most of it."
Mrs. Vawter is survived by her husband, Robert; daughter Laura Hobby; her son Robert Vawter III; her sister Janet Saas; her brother Robert Medors and two grandchildren.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]