ST. PETE BEACH — A parade float idles up Corey Avenue in the black-and-white photo. A model in a one-piece bathing suit surrounded by plastic egrets holds onto a palm tree and waves.
Roberta Whipple was a child during the 1959 Suntan Festival. She never outgrew that pride in her hometown, and recently released a book about St. Pete Beach.
Mrs. Whipple, who for the last 15 years served as administrator of the St. Pete Beach Public Library, where she came up with eye-catching special events for people who love mysteries, Florida writers and the theater, died Dec. 16 of ovarian cancer. She was 57.
Long before she landed her dream job, Mrs. Whipple had seen the image of St. Pete Beach evolve from that of underachieving sibling to star in its own right. Her father, Robert "Doc" Lamb, filled prescriptions and sold banana splits at Lamb's Pharmacy at Blind Pass Road and 75th Avenue (current site of K. Kringle's Christmas Shoppe).
She graduated from Lakewood High and taught English briefly at Gibbs High between bachelor's and master's degrees at Florida State University. She was working as a librarian in Ruskin in 1989 when she met Jon Whipple through a video dating service. Both were in their late thirties and had never married.
"Right away she showed how engaging and funny and knowledgeable she was about quite a few different things," said Whipple, 53, a Nielsen researcher. "All of the arts — drama, music, literature. Also baseball."
They married in 1990, four years before Mrs. Whipple landed her job as director of the St. Pete Beach library. In 1996, she and her husband bought a dream home, a two-story 1926 house in Greater Woodlawn. She outfitted it with wicker furniture and a wrought-iron bed, and created a library out of a downstairs room with a matching rose-colored chair and settee.
Every year seemed to bring new ideas from Mrs. Whipple. She brought Florida writers such as Tim Dorsey, Dennis Lehane and Les Standiford to the library. The American Stage company supplied actors to perform two plays at the library — Tampa native Richard Alfieri's Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, a Broadway play; and Bill Leavengood's Florida Crackers.
In 2006, Mrs. Whipple organized a conference of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society held at the Don CeSar Beach Resort. It was inspired in part by her research proving that the author of The Great Gatsby and his wife stayed there in January 1932.
"Scott and Zelda came specifically to the Don CeSar," said Gail Sinclair, a Rollins College literature professor. "They liked to frequent the expensive hotels. They never stayed at any cheap places."
Mrs. Whipple's discovery of a newspaper story about the couple's arrival cemented something the society knew but hadn't been able to prove.
"She did a lot of background research from microfiche that the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society society was really happy to have," Sinclair said.
When the movie A Flash of Green — originally produced in 1984 and based on a book by Florida writer John. D. MacDonald — was digitally remastered, she arranged for a showing at the Beach Theatre followed by a discussion with people involved in making the movie.
Mrs. Whipple also catered to seasonal visitors, many of whom wrote her thank-you letters after returning home. "She loved St. Pete Beach, and never got over being thrilled to be the administrator of the St. Pete Beach library," said Barbara Mooney, a board member of the Friends of the St. Pete Beach Public Library.
Six weeks before she died, Mrs. Whipple released her own book, St. Pete Beach's Corey Avenue, filled with photos of sites near Corey Avenue: a brand new Pelican Diner; Moore's Sundries; the Out of Sight Shop; as well as the first church and fire department on the island.
Tucked away in a shot of the Beach Theatre parking lot is part of Beach Memorial Funeral Home, where Mrs. Whipple's funeral service was held.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.