ST. PETERSBURG — When Monta L. Tourtelot was a girl growing up in Alabama during the Great Depression, she sold canned soap door do door. And in her free time, she played piano.
Her work and her play both made sense during a time when money was tight for a family with eight kids. She would later say the only sweets her family could afford were wild sand pears, which the family gathered, canned and spread over toasted, buttered bread.
"She sold soap door to door because she knew she had to, because there was a family waiting for the money she earned," said Dorothy King, one of her three daughters.
Also, King said, "they all learned to play piano just by teaching themselves because that was the only entertainment they had."
Sales and music stayed with her. She became a real estate saleswoman when it was rare, and went to work for the Tourtelot real estate firm, where she met her future husband, Jack Tourtelot. She also continued to play piano into her 90s, even when macular degeneration had taken most of her eyesight away.
"She'd sit down at the piano and play for us without any music, just remembering. She was just dynamic," said her friend Ede Livingstone, 88. She particularly liked playing hymns such as Great Is Thy Faithfulness, What a Friend We Have in Jesus and It Is Well With My Soul.
She was divorced from her first husband in the 1940s and moved to Florida with two of her three daughters. In the late 1940s she had a job selling old Army barracks that had been vacated after World War II. People bought them, and had them set up on lots in St. Petersburg.
Mrs. Tourtelot was quoted in a 1961 Times article that began: "Have you ever wondered whether or not you could be a successful real estate woman?" Three others were quoted saying women could make between $3,000 to $8,000 per year in the field. Mrs. Tourtelot said: "In my first year when I was an eager beaver, and worked 16 hours a day, I sold 53 homes and made $15,000."
In her spare time she loved gardening, and grew roses, green peppers, papayas, bananas, figs and more. She continued playing music. She and her four sisters would sometimes go to conventions of amateur organ players, all dressed alike, and play together.
She never felt she was fully dressed if she wasn't wearing red, King said. She also played bridge, and enjoyed eating out with friends. She also remained close to her sisters, often calling them at midnight or later, knowing they would be up for conversation too, King said.
Mrs. Tourtelot died at her home on Wednesday, at age 97.