SEMINOLE — For the talent portion of her first pageant 13 years ago, Mercia Tillman did what she loved best: singing.
She opened her mouth and belted out her signature tune for the audience — Wind Beneath My Wings.
That day, the 81-year-old walked away with the crown of Ms. Senior Florida 1996.
Earning that title was the highlight of her life, her family said, but just one of thousands of performances over nine decades.
"That literally defined her life," said Malcolm "Mac" Stewart, her son. "That's what she was all about. She was an exciting lady."
Mrs. Tillman died Nov. 21. She was 94.
"She had a full life," Stewart said.
Mrs. Tillman was born Dec. 11, 1914, in Chatham, England.
She played in a band in London, and sang and danced for troops during World War II. She was one of the first nine women to cross the English Channel after D-Day, her son said. She also worked as an operative for the agency that eventually became the CIA.
On Jan. 21, 1946, Mrs. Tillman met the man who would become her husband.
Theirs was a classic wartime romance.
William Tillman, 10 years her junior, was out with buddies celebrating his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army.
Mrs. Tillman was in the German club singing, playing the piano and telling jokes.
It was love at first sight.
As the years passed, William Tillman also became his wife's biggest fan, managing her entertainment career and even writing a biography about her life.
"He'd lug around all the amplifiers and speakers and stuff. He did the publicity," Stewart said. "They were totally devoted to each other."
The couple lived all over the world, including Japan, Germany, France and several places in the United States.
While traveling, Mrs. Tillman sang and danced and acted, landing the title role in Auntie Mame and hosting her own radio show.
The couple moved to Florida in 1973 from Virginia.
It didn't take Mrs. Tillman long to make her name known in the local entertainment business.
She hosted hundreds of shows at senior centers, country clubs, nursing homes, community centers and talent shows across Tampa Bay. After the 1996 pageant, she placed as a finalist in the national Ms. Senior America event.
"She wasn't the type of grandparent who sat around and hung out with you all day," said granddaughter Heather Stewart, 38, of Largo. "She's pretty well known around here in her age group. She was always so busy."
In 2000, the St. Petersburg City Council inducted Mrs. Tillman into the Senior Hall of Fame. She was honored as an entertainer and volunteer at several local charities.
Family members said they weren't sure where Mrs. Tillman's entertaining spirit came from, but that it seemed natural.
"She never went anywhere without being noticed," Heather Stewart said. "You always knew when Grandma visited because there was a trail of glitter."
Mrs. Tillman always wore her short, reddish hair curled. She never went out without makeup, and she favored long, flowing outfits.
Every Christmas, she'd have a new pair of gold Arabian-style slippers, a gift from her husband.
When she sang or did shows, she used three keyboards, and would tell jokes in between.
In another life, her family said, perhaps Mrs. Tillman would have been a movie star.
"She was always kind of larger than life," Heather Stewart said. "But that's the way she liked it. I think that's how she wanted people to see her."
Mrs. Tillman did shows well past her 80th birthday, not stopping until a few years ago, her family said.
"She was truly an entertainer," her son said. "I think she gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people in her life."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.