Vera Whitehurst's kids used to feel sad when she talked about her childhood. She had to walk 4 miles to school every morning and work on the farm when she got home. She worked in the school cafeteria because her parents couldn't afford to provide her lunch.
About 25 years ago, one of Mrs. Whitehurst's daughters gave her a doll as a gift. Mrs. Whitehurst was in her mid 60s, and it was the first doll she had ever owned.
To her kids, Mrs. Whitehurst's childhood seemed austere, even bleak. But to her, it seemed idyllic.
" 'We were happy,' " her children recalled her saying. " 'We didn't know we were poor.' "
Mrs. Whitehurst died Oct. 11 from complications of a stroke she suffered four years ago. She was 91.
Even after age and illness had taken her physical vitality, she kept a cheerful outlook, her daughters said. She'd flirt with her male doctors and the repairmen who came to her home. She'd say "I love you" to almost anyone she met.
Mrs. Whitehurst moved to Plant City with her family when she was a toddler and lived here the rest of her life. She excelled in school and dreamed of going to college even though her parents didn't give her any encouragement in her academic pursuits.
"They didn't care about her grades," said her daughter Joyce Kantrowitz. "They needed her to work on the farm. They didn't even look at her grades. She'd bring home her report cards and sign them herself. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school."
While she was a student at Plant City High School, she started hearing about a popular young man named Willard Whitehurst. He was handsome and athletic. Everybody told her she should meet him.
When she first saw him, she wasn't impressed.
"But as soon as they started talking, that was it," Kantrowitz said.
They married two years later.
They had five children together — their youngest son passed away from cancer in adulthood — and Mrs. Whitehurst doted on them. She'd stay up all night making doll clothes for her daughters or designing and creating elaborate Halloween costumes for each of her kids. She was a homeroom mother for one of her kids every year. She also drove school groups on field trips and chaperoned school events.
"We'd volunteer her," her daughter Kaye Whitehurst-Miller said. "We'd come home and say, 'Mom, you're doing this tomorrow.' And she'd say, 'Okay.' "
Her energy seemed boundless all through her life. She took up tennis when she was in her 30s and became a local tennis champion. Years later she discovered golf and won several championships at her country clubs. Even after five pregnancies, she always kept trim.
"After she had a child, she would just go out to the tennis court and whip herself back into shape," Whitehurst-Miller said.
Her kids were just as devoted to her as she was to them. The other kids in the neighborhood liked her, too, and the Whitehurst home became a gathering spot.
"Our house was always hopping," Whitehurst-Miller said. "She was so warm and welcoming. All my friends just loved her, and they felt very comfortable around her. I don't remember feeling that way when I went to a some of my friends' houses."
One reason she was so popular may have been her prowess in the kitchen. She was known as an amazing cook, and her buttermilk biscuits were the stuff of local legend.
"She'd tell us how she made them," Whitehurst-Miller said. "She'd even show us how to make them." Still, no one else could do it.
Besides Whitehurst-Miller and Kantrowitz, Mrs. Whitehurst is survived by her daughter Patsy Vittor, her son Terry Whitehurst, her sister Betty Lochridge, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.