TAMPA — Dottie Berger Mac-Kinnon, a former Hillsborough County commissioner and a celebrated advocate for abused and neglected children, died Sunday morning of cancer. She was 71.
Her husband, A.D. "Sandy" MacKinnon, said his wife died surrounded by her family at her Tampa home at 8:27 a.m.
"She had a rough couple of days," Mac-Kinnon said. "She's now in a much better place."
One of the most widely honored figures in recent Hillsborough history, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was known for taking on one of the toughest issues any community can face: how to lessen the daily damage being done to children in abusive or dysfunctional homes.
Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was a co-founder of Joshua House and Friends of Joshua House, and the founder regarded as most central to the Kids Charity of Tampa Bay and A Kid's Place, which all offer aid to children in crisis.
She helped raise millions in private donations, spearheading a key move to keep siblings together in A Kid's Place in Brandon, then forged personal relationships with teen mothers and children who had been taken out of their homes.
"In our community, the name Dottie stands for passion, integrity, tenacity and love," former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "Her life has been a gift, especially for our vulnerable children who have needed a friend and advocate."
Even in her last days, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon worked on issues she loved, participating in A Kid's Place board meeting by phone a week or so ago, Iorio said Sunday.
Iorio recalled how, during that conversation, Mrs. Berger Mac-Kinnon talked about how much better the world would be if everybody took the time to help someone less fortunate.
"It always came down to one simple rule with Dottie: 'Do the right thing, and do it in the best interest of our children,' " said DeDe Grundel, the executive director of Friends of Joshua House Foundation and another founder of A Kid's Place. "A simple rule does not always mean it's easy to execute. And yet Dottie could move mountains. She could push through almost any barrier to achieve her goal."
All the while, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was fighting her own battles with breast cancer diagnosed a dozen years ago; then duct cancer diagnosed in 2010. She remained active almost to the end, calling her survival miraculous even though "miracle doesn't always mean cure."
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Her knack for handling crisis began early.
Dorothy Crutcher was born in Vine Grove, Ky., in 1942, one of 10 children. At age 15, her parents sent her to live with younger cousins in Maryland.
She lived in Washington, D.C., after high school, a couple of blocks from the White House. At the time, it was not uncommon to see President John. F. Kennedy's limousine riding by, kindling an interest in the political world.
A marriage brought her to Tampa, where she worked with rancher Bob Thomas at his Two Rivers Ranch and first grew dissatisfied with county government regulations she considered nonsensical.
In 1992, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon and several other citizens co-founded Joshua House, a shelter in Lutz for kids, which now handles children ages 7 to 17 who have been removed from their homes.
One of those was a 4-year-old named Crystal. She stayed there until age 7, when she was adopted by a St. Petersburg couple. Now 21, Crystal Obst remembers Mrs. Berger MacKinnon as "such an inspiration to me."
"She used to tell me all the time that I was God's little sunbeam," Obst said.
Mrs. Berger MacKinnon continued her brand of practical activism in 1994, winning a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. "I thought I could save the world, but I don't know if I did," Mrs. Berger MacKinnon later told the Tampa Tribune.
As a commissioner, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon supported a Community Investment Tax and argued for privatizing Tampa General Hospital, both controversial stances she associated with her failed re-election bid in 1998.
In 2001, she married A.D. "Sandy" MacKinnon, who owned a forklift company now called MacKinnon Equipment and Services. They were a philanthropic team, sitting on numerous boards and donating to charities.
Mrs. Berger MacKinnon served on the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority, as well as three terms on Tampa General Hospital's governing board.
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In 1999, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment required at least 11 surgeries.
"She was an inspiration for a lot of women because even when she had the breast cancer, she muscled through everything," Grundel said. "She just had this fortitude. If she was having surgery one day, she would roll out of bed on the next, put on her hair and makeup and go to another meeting."
After a nudge by mutual friends of lawyer Tracy Sheehan, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon approached Sheehan, who was undergoing chemotherapy, in the Harbor Island Athletic Club.
She offered encouragement, then persuaded Sheehan to take on pro bono cases for the children of Joshua House. Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was serving as chairwoman of the foundation, Friends of Joshua House.
Sheehan later became a Hillsborough Circuit judge and helped found A Kid's Place. Though judges don't refer children in crisis to specific agencies, many she removed from their homes wound up there.
"Not only has Dottie led the charge to help needy children in the bay area, she has inspired countless others to join in her quest to ensure the neediest among us are cared for," Sheehan said.
In the mid 2000s, she became increasingly concerned about children in the foster care system. Siblings often were separated. And it was not unusual for kids to bounce from one home to another. "They're traumatized because they're removed from their families, and now they're traumatized more because they've split the kids up," she told the Times.
Mrs. Berger MacKinnon, Grundel and others founded Kid's Charity of Tampa Bay in 2006.
The group then raised $5 million to open a 60-bed facility on Lithia Pinecrest Road in 2009, boosted by several private contributions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and $1 million from Sandy MacKinnon.
Though Mrs. MacKinnon was, as Grundel put it, "the visionary" behind A Kid's Place, getting it started was far from a solo effort. Every local agency that deals with child welfare helped put the program together. Children entered A Kid's Place for a stay of several weeks, during which time they could be assessed by professionals. They played in the 5-acre plot and interacted with adult volunteers and staffers, who pushed them on the swing or read to them.
It was the first facility of its kind in Hillsborough County.
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Just as that achievement was taking root, doctors delivered grim news: Mrs. Berger MacKinnon had bile duct cancer. Before the diagnosis, various agencies had honored her work. With the advent of A Kid's Place, the awards increased, including an annual award by the Tampa General Hospital Foundation in 2009.
In the last few years, public gratitude has rained down. In 2011 alone, Hood Simply Smart Milk, the League of Women Voters and Hillsborough County all named Mrs. Berger MacKinnon as the recipient of annual awards. Iorio named the playground at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park after her. In March, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was inducted into the Hillsborough County Women's Hall of Fame.
A privately delivered accolade might have meant just as much.
Crystal Obst, the former charge of Joshua House, had kept in touch with Mrs. Berger Mac-Kinnon as she grew up. Things hadn't been easy. She had made a few mistakes, including falling in love with a man who left when she told him she was pregnant.
Now the mother of a baby girl, Obst recently visited Mrs. Berger MacKinnon. "I told her, 'Honestly, Dottie, you have been God's little sunbeam in my life, the only thing that motivated me and made me push on.' "
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. But Mrs. Berger MacKinnon's family said a memorial service would be held later in the week.
Staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.