ST. PETERSBURG — As Halloween approached, Odette Patterson called a friend to retrieve the child-sized witch's costume that fit her perfectly.
When November came, she always returned the costume. No sense in keeping it, Mrs. Patterson said — she would not live another year.
On her 90th birthday, which fell conveniently on New Year's Eve, Mrs. Patterson threw herself a party at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
Might as well celebrate with her many friends, she said. She would not live another year.
Every three months, she drove to the doctor, who always bore surprising news: She was in perfect health.
She actually tried to dwell on the topic of dying. She wanted to see her husband again, she said, the other half of the Charles A. and Odette W. Patterson Charitable Trust, which has benefitted countless crime victims and put police officers and firefighters through college.
But within minutes of starting that kind of talk, Mrs. Patterson would forget all about it. She would put on her size 5 tennis shoes, load up her walker with her favorite stuffed toys — including a bear that declares, "I luuuuuve chocolate" — and head for the roof of Bayfront Tower for a daily walk.
Or to another meeting of the St. Petersburg Exchange Club.
Or to the police department, where she had volunteered every Thursday for more than 20 years.
The tiny woman with a big smile and a bigger hug always had more living to do.
"She was 4-foot-10, but, honey, she made a mighty roar," said Kay Brown, a close friend. The state of Florida recognized her efforts in 2006, naming Mrs. Patterson its Victim Advocate of the Year.
The $400,000 trust she established in 1991 helps crime victims when they need it most.
A robbery victim needs his locks changed. A battered spouse needs cash for a hotel room at 3 a.m. A mugging victim from another state could use a bus ticket home.
"Our victim advocates go out in critical situations, and if they identify a need, they are able to go in there and give them the money to take care of those needs," said police Chief Chuck Harmon, who accompanied Mrs. Patterson to Tallahassee four years ago to see her get the award. "We are probably the only agency in the country that has the ability to do that."
Mrs. Patterson recently renamed that part of the trust the John R. Foltz Memorial Victims Fund, after the attorney who helped her set up her foundation. Another part of the trust has provided college and post-graduate scholarships to more than 300 police officers and 100 firefighters.
"Just staying in the educational realm helps you with critical thinking. It helps everything you are doing," said fire Chief James Large, who said the Patterson trust helped him get his own bachelor's and master's degrees. Both chiefs credited the trust with making it easier to upgrade their departments' educational requirements since it was established.
Mrs. Patterson also underwrote cash supplements to the annual police Officer of the Year and Firefighter of the Year award recipients, and bought the first McGruff the Crime Dog costume for police, said former police spokesman Bill Doniel. In the late 1970s, she gave the department a real dog, a canine superstar from Germany who responded only to German-language commands.
The woman behind all of the service to others grew up poor and abused.
Odette Walling was born in Pau, France, in the Pyrenees, the only child of an American soldier and his French wife. At age 6, speaking only French, she moved with her family to New York.
Young Odette graduated at the top of her class at St. Catherine's Commercial High School, where she learned typing and shorthand. The family moved to Alabama.
She survived childhood more than she enjoyed it, beaten by an alcoholic father and neglected by an emotionally unstable mother.
"She wasn't looking for sympathy," said Brown, 71. "She wanted you to know that it had not been easy, but that you can turn it around and help others."
She moved to St. Petersburg in 1945 and married Charles Patterson the same year. Her job as a receptionist at First Federal Bank and his as a fleet manager for General Telephone trucks provided a steady income. Her inability to bear children meant more money for the household — which the couple saved, then invested wisely.
"She wished she could have children," said Brown.
Under the tutelage of bank president Raleigh Greene Sr., she moved up to assistant secretary at First Federal, then into advertising. In 1960, Mrs. Patterson was named St. Petersburg's Advertising Woman of the Year. The same year, the Woman's Advertising Club of St. Petersburg, which she led as president, won a national achievement award from the Advertising Federation of America.
On Dec. 31, 2009, Mrs. Patterson threw another birthday party at the yacht club, certain she would not live another year.
Mrs. Patterson died Sunday, at Westminster Palms, her home for the last two years. She was 95.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]