PALMA CEIA WEST — Thelma Herman would do just about anything for anyone.
For more than three decades, Mrs. Herman was one of the most dedicated and selfless volunteers at Tampa General Hospital. She also volunteered for many years at Lifepath Hospice and loved that work so much that even after her cancer kept her from going to the hospice offices, she found ways to volunteer from home.
At Christmas, one of her friends commented that she wanted to bake cookies to give to her neighbors but didn't have enough time. So Mrs. Herman did the baking for her.
Her family and friends had countless stories about how generous Mrs. Herman was with her time and her boundless energy. But she had limits. She would not give anyone her recipe for bread-and-butter pickles. She was a gifted cook and an even better baker, but everyone who loved her food loved her pickles more than anything else she cooked. No one could comprehend how pickles could taste so good.
Mrs. Herman never told them.
"It was the one recipe she would not give out," said her son Jerry. "People begged her for it. People offered her money for it. But it was a family recipe, and she made sure it stayed in the family."
Mrs. Harvey passed away Jan. 9 after a relatively short battle with cancer. She was 83.
Really, nobody who knew Mrs. Herman minded too much about her stinginess with the pickle recipe. Most of them were amazed that she had time to make pickles and bake a seemingly endless supply of cakes, pies and cookies while she devoted so many hours to volunteer work.
Mrs. Herman was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was still living with her parents when she met her husband. Al Herman was originally interested in her older sister.
"But he came to the house and saw my mom, and that was it," said her daughter, Leslie Harvey.
Mrs. Herman went on only three dates with Al — the first was to see a brand-new Broadway musical called Oklahoma! — before he proposed. He was in the Navy and went off to World War II shortly after they were engaged. They married as soon as he came home, in the middle of the war, to finish his service as an instructor at the United States Naval Academy. They stayed together until he died a few years ago.
"My father loved my mother unconditionally," her son said. "He never so much as looked at another woman."
The couple moved to Tampa after a short stint in Annapolis, Md., and a few years in Sarasota.
They had three children, one of whom, Steven, died in an accident when he was 25. Both her daughter and her surviving son, Jerry, were born on their mother's birthday.
Partly because of her cooking and baking, but mostly because of her way of dealing with people, her house became a gathering place for her children's friends. There were always fresh-baked cookies and cakes at the Herman house. And even when her kids were grown, it wasn't unusual for their friends to come to the house to talk over a problem with Mrs. Herman.
In the family's first years in Tampa, in the 1960s, Mrs. Herman worked as an accountant for the blood bank next to Tampa General. Her son and daughter say that's probably how she began her 33-year association with the hospital.
She would have been an invaluable volunteer if she had simply put in her time at the information desk. But Mrs. Herman was too dedicated to the hospital to work that way.
"She was always looking for and suggesting ways to make the hospital better for the patients and guests," said Ellen Fiss, the spokeswoman for Tampa General. "Thelma would not mince words. She would always tell you exactly what she thought, but she'd always do it with a twinkle in her eye."
Mrs. Herman didn't want a traditional funeral, but her friends at Tampa General are planning a memorial for her at the hospital at noon Jan. 22 in the MacInnes Auditorium. Call (813) 844-7449 for information.
A few years back, Tampa General published a cookbook with recipes from staff members and volunteers. Mrs. Herman's cooking and baking were famous among her colleagues, so they prevailed upon her to share her recipes. Several of them appeared in the book, which is still on sale in the hospital gift shop.
Of course, that pickle recipe was the one people really wanted. But Mrs. Herman still wouldn't reveal it. It was one of the few times in 33 years that she said no to Tampa General.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]