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Retired educator Ella Mary Holmes' life was set to music

Ella Mary Holmes often took kids from the Happy Workers Children’s Center to see the Florida Orchestra. Here she’s shown wearing a trademark glittery hat during a show in December.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Ella Mary Holmes often took kids from the Happy Workers Children’s Center to see the Florida Orchestra. Here she’s shown wearing a trademark glittery hat during a show in December.

ST. PETERSBURG — Her mother had four failed pregnancies. Ella Mary Holmes was the first baby to make it.

Remarkable, her family said. But knowing her, not surprising.

Three other siblings came along. Mrs. Holmes outlived them all. Not surprising.

• • •

Mrs. Holmes, an icon in St. Petersburg's African-American community, died Friday of a heart attack. She was 91.

She wasn't afraid of much.

She grew up in St. Petersburg during segregation. Her father, community activist Chester James, was the namesake for the Jamestown neighborhood. Her mother, Rachel, was a teacher.

"They weren't a family of means, by any means," said her niece Lynnette Hardy. "They didn't know they were poor. They were rich in other ways."

Music filled the family home, a haven from the rough world outside. Mrs. Holmes didn't go to movies or play much. Instead, she studied with her father, a choir director who trained his kids to sing at funerals. The family rode to services tucked in the back of hearses.

As she grew, Mrs. Holmes kept singing and playing the organ. She got a bachelor's degree, then a master's. She studied music in Rome and Paris.

She was a widow who never had kids, but she adored children. In St. Petersburg, she worked as a teacher and principal for 42 years. She had high standards. In her schools, she eschewed teaching Black History Month.

"They're special every month," she told the St. Petersburg Times in February.

She talked to kids like grownups. She liked them better than people her age.

"She often stated she would rather talk to children than talk to adults," her niece said. "She just thought adults had a lot of foolishness."

• • •

People always stared at her. She drove a Cadillac. She gifted herself purple roses on her birthday. She was tiny and glamorous to the hilt with powdered skin and red lips. She had dozens of hats in different states of glitter and feather and fur. One chapeau featured a life-sized parrot made totally of sequins.

She strutted about town, taking in performances. She saw operas at the Palladium and attended graduation ceremonies just to hear Pomp and Circumstance. She took in several church services a week just to hear the choir.

Children needed to hear the same things, she thought, so she regularly acquired tickets so kids from the Happy Workers Children's Center could see the Florida Orchestra perform. She proudly escorted them to the front row.

"That was the biggest part of her life," said Hardy, 58. "My aunt believed in education, and she believed in exposing children to the finer things of life as early as possible. She always had the very best of everything."

Even this year, she had purchased season tickets to the orchestra.

• • •

Mrs. Holmes didn't mince words. She usually got what she wanted.

"She would tell you just how she felt about something," said her sister-in-law, Bertha James. "She didn't bite her tongue about making her desires known."

She had one very specific desire: at her funeral, no talking. "Say it with music," she had told the St. Petersburg Times.

Her family knew, too. For one hour of her wake, they said, there won't be a peep — no prayers, no speeches of remembrance. Instead, members of the Florida Orchestra will just play.

Remarkable, but not surprising.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

. biography

Ella Mary Holmes

Born: March 19, 1917.

Died: Aug. 29, 2008.

Survivors: sister-in-law Bertha James; nieces Lynnette Hardy, Tyeisha James, Alexis James, Pamela James, Loretta Morris, Stacy Graham; nephews Deontrey James, Larry James, Warren Morris.

Services: Wake 3-8 p.m. today with family receiving friends 6-7 p.m. at Creal Funeral Home, 1940 Seventh Ave. S. Funeral at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral, 104 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg.

Retired educator Ella Mary Holmes' life was set to music 09/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:12pm]
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