WEST TAMPA — Her full name was Leonarda Saitta Chenard, but the kids in her neighborhood called her Nana Lena.
And to generations of students at Jefferson High School, where she worked for 22 years, she was "Nana Lena, the Bag Lady."
She worked in the Jefferson cafeteria, but she was famous for the bag lunches she'd make and sell to the students after lunch hour, in case anyone had missed lunch or wanted a little something extra. If there were any students who couldn't afford to eat, she made sure they didn't go hungry.
Mrs. Chenard died July 31, just a few days short of her 94th birthday. She had struggled with Alzheimer's disease in her later years, but remained in her West Tampa home where she had lived for more than 60 years, cared for by her daughter and son-in-law, Judy and William Guevara.
She had worked at a couple of jobs before she started at Jefferson in 1970 — she had been a seamstress at the old Maas Brothers on Gandy Boulevard for many years — but it seemed to be her calling to be surrounded by hungry kids.
In fact, every morning before she went to work, kids from Jefferson would stop by her house. They were mostly friends of her two grandsons who attended Jefferson, but they were really there to see Nana Lena. She fed them Cuban toast, grits and coffee before they went off to school.
Mrs. Chenard was born and raised in Ybor City. Her parents were Sicilian immigrants who never learned English. But they insisted that their seven children speak it fluently.
Mrs. Chenard stayed there through her school years, and even after she got married to Armando Chenard, a custodian at the old Jefferson High School, who passed away about 30 years ago.
Among family and friends, she was also known for an invention she called the "peanut pillow." It was, as the name implies, a peanut-shaped pillow that could be used to support the neck while sleeping or sitting.
"She made them for all of us and was always so tickled to present them to us," said her niece, Jeannette Tamborello
Mrs. Chenard even gave one to Jimmy Carter when he visited Jefferson High School during his presidency.
"At one point she thought about patenting them but it didn't work out," said Mrs. Chenard's daughter, Norma Chenard.
Similar pillows are now touted in late-night TV commercials.
The people who knew Mrs. Chenard best say that even in adulthood, she approached life with a childlike sense of wonder and enthusiasm. Well into middle age, she was still acquiring new hobbies — bowling, bingo and dancing among them — and looked at every occasion as a chance to meet new people.
"Everything was new and exciting," Tamborello said, "and she wanted to have all of it. She wanted to experience all of it and she wanted you to experience it, too."
Besides her daughters Judy and Norma, Mrs. Chenard is survived by her sister Josephine Samuel, daughter Carlotta Arias, eight grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]com.