TAMPA — Martha Ferman lived the life of a southern belle, gracious and hospitable.
She relished in doling out icy Coca-Cola and Georgia peanuts to anyone who came knocking.
She had the means to become a lifelong debutante. Instead she devoted herself to causes that made Tampa a better place.
"She would walk into a room full of people and make every one of them feel like they were the most special person there," said her granddaughter Janice Ferman Straske.
"And she really did think that."
Mrs. Ferman died at home Thursday morning after a stroke days earlier, surrounded by pink roses from her garden. She was 96.
More than a half-century ago in 1959, she helped form a group called the Chiselers that worked to rejuvenate a Tampa landmark, the old Tampa Bay Hotel, now home to the University of Tampa.
It started when Sunny Delo, wife of then-UT president David Delo, found old fireplace tiles that had been painted over. She asked Mrs. Ferman to host a luncheon, to which Mrs. Delo brought muriatic acid, gloves and chisels.
That initial group has grown to more than 300 members who have raised nearly $4 million to preserve the building's Moorish features. Mrs. Ferman was president in 1962.
"The list of her civic involvement is staggering," said Straske. From the Gorrie Elementary PTA to Tampa Theatre, Junior League, Tampa Museum of Art, Florida Orchestra, United Way, America Red Cross, Salvation Army, Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Rose Garden Circle. She was a founder of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.
In a note to the family, longtime friend Dudley Clendinen remembered Ferman for "her charitable, flowing heart, her sense of humor … her gorgeously egalitarian spirit and unfailing, common touch, her pleasure in mischief, and also her very good and canny mind and memory."
She was born in the rural Georgia town of Shellman, not far from Plains.
She delighted that President Jimmy Carter hailed from similar roots.
She met her late husband, auto pioneer James L. Ferman Sr., on a blind date while visiting her brother in Tampa.
Mr. Ferman sold Oldsmobiles at his father's dealership, which was destined to grow with the city around it and become the Ferman Automotive Group.
He proposed on the deck of his family's yacht. Six months after starting a teaching job in Georgia, she quit to get married.
"They called me a trousseau teacher," she said in a 2005 Times interview. "I taught long enough to buy a trousseau."
They moved into the Historic Hyde Park home that had belonged to the groom's grandparents.
The in-laws, Fred and Bess Ferman, lived directly behind them on Bayshore. Eventually, that became Jim and Martha Ferman's home.
Mrs. Ferman took this advice from her mother-in-law: "Never learn to cook, and maybe you'll never have to." Hired help was a wedding gift. "She enjoyed going out to dinner and never missed a party," Straske said.
Mrs. Ferman played piano all her life, spanning two octaves until arthritis narrowed her reach. She danced the Charleston at Gasparilla balls and played bridge at the yacht club. She picked out a new Chevrolet every year. She kept a favorite 1976 white Oldsmobile Toronado in her garage.
"Her life was such a gift," Straske said, "she enjoyed every single day."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.