TAMPA — Like the simple but elegant dresses she sewed, Phyllis Heinrich wore well on others. The wife of popular Hillsborough County Sheriff Walter Heinrich, Mrs. Heinrich appeared at countless functions at his side.
"So many times people connected with politics are strident or outspoken, but that was not her," said Jan Platt, a former Hillsborough County commissioner. "She was soft-spoken, polite and gracious."
Mrs. Heinrich died on Thursday after a lingering illness. She was 85.
A civil engineer's daughter, she was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up in Oakland, Calif. She moved to Tampa and enrolled at the Gordon Keller School of Nursing. In 1946, as a registered nurse at Tampa General Hospital, she caught the eye of Walter Heinrich, then an ambulance driver. He still remembers the white starched cap, the admitting desk where she sat, even the time on the clock. It was 3 p.m.
"I looked at her closely," recalled Heinrich, 82. He asked her out, and the die was cast. "We just clicked," he said.
He embarked on a 48-year career in law enforcement, including 14 years as Hillsborough County's sheriff, retiring in 1993 — a job of uncommon pressures that sometimes increased her own duties.
"She understood what she had to do, the hours he had to keep and the shift work he had to do," said her son, Walter "Buzzy" Heinrich Jr., a Hillsborough circuit court judge. "She picked up the slack."
She made clothes for herself and her children. She sewed her husband's shirts and ties.
Both Malcolm Beard and Cal Henderson, the retired Hillsborough County sheriffs who served before and after Heinrich, described Mrs. Heinrich as loyal to her husband and well informed.
"She talked naturally," Henderson said. "She was up on current events. And she was obviously looking out for her man."
"She had a career, children, and a cop for a husband," said Jack Espinosa, 77, Walter Heinrich's former spokesman. "If that ain't three strikes, I don't know what is."
Some crises came out of the blue. Her first grandchild died at age 4 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Then in 1981, Mrs. Heinrich was riding in a car struck by a truck that had run a stop sign. Her arm and shoulder were crushed, and her face was badly cut.
"She was very cheerful," her husband said. "Even after going through such a horrendous experience."
Six years ago, the Heinrichs moved to University Village, an assisted living facility. Then Mrs. Heinrich's health, which had been declining in recent months, took a sudden turn for the worse.
"She was my life," her husband said. "She is responsible for whatever successes I've had."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.