BAYSHORE — Mary Perzia spoke her mind, whether you were her best friend or a burglar robbing her at gunpoint.
"She let you know what she thought,'' said her lifelong friend Joyce Cabanzo. "She was a very strong character."
One evening in the mid '80s, Mrs. Perzia and her husband, a Tampa ophthalmologist, went to the home of their neighbors, the late Adela and Cesar Gonzmart. The couples were planning a nice evening out for dinner.
"Daddy honked and honked and finally my mother went to see what was taking them so long," said the Perzias' oldest daughter, Toni Everett.
But instead of the Gonzmarts, a gunman opened the door and yanked Mrs. Perzia inside.
There had been robbery attempts at the Perzias' home on Davis Islands, but seeing her friends bound and gagged did not keep Mrs. Perzia from audaciously voicing her frustration. "I am so sick and tired of being robbed," she said.
Eventually one of them managed to get loose and call the police. No one was hurt.
Mrs. Perzia died April 12, three months shy of her 100th birthday. She was at home, in Grand Court Tampa, a residence for seniors, and died of natural causes, Everett said.
During her last days, hospice workers played her Frank Sinatra and Latin music, songs she loved to dance to. She asked to be buried in a beaded evening gown with matching floor-length coat and handbag, the kind of ensemble that helped her twice earn the distinction of Best Dressed by the Tampa Woman's Club.
"But I switched her shoes," said Everett. "For a pair of my silver dancing shoes."
Per Mrs. Perzia's long-standing request, Cabanzo sang Ave Maria at her friend's funeral mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa.
Mrs. Perzia, the second of four children born in Ybor City to Sicilian immigrants Giovannai and Lucy Marchetta, had hoped to become a nurse-midwife. But when she was in high school, her father, a restaurant owner, was murdered. So she went to work to help support her family.
When she attended Hillsborough High, she began dating Anthony Perzia, a neighborhood fellow she'd known since she was 13. They married Christmas Day 1935 and she busied herself taking care of their home and two daughters, finding time for garden clubs, the medical auxiliary and various volunteer activities.
The couple were married for 69 years, until his death in 2005.
Dr. Perzia was as serious as she was fun-loving, say friends and family. They never knew what Mrs. Perzia might say or do but knew it would be entertaining.
"She would get up and dance with a glass on her head, usually Scotch," said Anna Alvarez, a friend for 50-plus years. "Not because she wanted attention — her husband adored her — it was just her personality. And she never spilled a drop."
Cabanzo's daughter, Sharma Fernandez, lauded Perzia's talent as a hostess, "especially at Christmas and New Year's … in a Santa outfit and a gold lame' jumpsuit."
"She could be outrageous,'' added Fernandez, imitating her strut up the aisle of a bus taking their group to a luncheon, a glass perched on her head.
But the party girl was also an acclaimed cook and devoted grandmother.
"She would make us pasta dishes and paella to freeze and ship in suitcases to us when we went away to college,'' said granddaughter Henderson Everett Lee.
"My frat brothers would beg me for food. It was like a feeding frenzy," added grandson Anthony Everett.
His memories of home-cooked food are only superseded by her introducing him to the dog track.
"She was so excited when I turned 16 and could drive her friends, all dressed perfectly, to the track,'' he said. "They would give me their bets to take to the window while they had their Bloody Marys. Then they would tip me with their winnings."
Before long, the teenager was placing his own bets, "high-fiving these 70-year-olds and coming home with a thousand dollars in my pocket.''
Mrs. Perzia is also survived by daughter Patty Clark; grandchildren Caitilin Martini Kamaris and Leila Martini, and six great-grandchildren.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3332.