HUDSON — She couldn't stop staring at the photo — Florida oranges still on the tree, sunlight bouncing off their skins. To Viola Locke, a farm girl in Vermont, this was the most mesmerizing thing about her high school geography textbook.
With the certainty that grips young people, she resolved to go there.
It wasn't that her Orleans County home was not also picturesque, but it was cold. She took a bus to St. Petersburg in 1952 with no other plan than to work in a downtown restaurant owned by a family friend.
In the nearly 60 years since, the woman who would be known as Viola LaCroix more than fulfilled her vision. St. Petersburg wasn't such a big town then, and it had orange trees and beaches. The 5-foot-tall woman made friends easily in her waitress job in a coffee shop across the street from the old Landmark Union Trust Bank building.
One of her customers, a heavy equipment operator named Wiley Mayo, took a liking to her. After her shift one night, they watched a movie at the State Theatre. One memorable date, they saw Elvis live.
Viola and Wiley married around 1960. They grew oranges in the back yard, a fulfillment of a Sunshine State dream. They trekked to the old armory at Woodlawn Park and Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa and drank in the hostility at wrestling exhibitions starring Lou Thesz, Eddie Graham and the Great Malenko.
At home, she watched enthralled as television announcer Gordon Solie intoned, "This is by far the most terrible thing I have ever witnessed," a statement he made most every week.
"It was theater, like the Greek tragedy kind of thing," said her daughter, Linda Mayo.
The couple divorced after 13 years. "They loved each other, but they just couldn't live together," said Mayo, 49. They remained close until Wiley Mayo's death in the early 1990s.
Mrs. LaCroix got a job on an assembly line at Honeywell International Inc. She worked her way up to inspector, manufacturing guidance systems for missiles and the space shuttle.
She learned to drive at age 45. At least once, she headed to the East Coast to watch the space shuttle lift its 4.5 million pounds into the sky on twin columns of fire.
She taught her daughter to train for a good job so that she could live with or without a husband. "She never let me think I couldn't do anything I wanted to do," Mayo said.
Mrs. LaCroix remained at Honeywell for 25 years. She continued to watch wrestling as it added layers of glitz, and knew about Hulk Hogan's feud with Jesse Ventura.
"She'd get really excited," her daughter said. "She'd yell at the TV and everything."
True to her Catholic upbringing, she did not swear, substituting phrases like "sugar foot" for profanity. She enjoyed watching television murder mysteries — and, later, playing computer games and e-mailing jokes.
Among her five siblings and their families, she was the one who remembered all birthdays. Any conflict between family members cut her to the core.
She remained single until the 1990s, when an old high school friend named Cliff looked her up. They wintered in St. Petersburg and spent summers in Vermont.
After Cliff's death, another high school friend tracked her down. She had not seen Joseph LaCroix in more than 50 years. They married in 2004.
Joseph LaCroix died in April 2010. Her own health declined due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her daughter suspects years of smoking contributed, even though Mrs. LaCroix quit in 1968.
From her bed at Community Hospital, she told her daughter she wanted "no fuss" and no funeral service.
Mrs. LaCroix died June 23 at Orchard Ridge Care and Rehabilitation Center. She was 83.
Her ashes will be interred next to Wiley Mayo at Memorial Park Cemetery, in the Florida soil she sought years ago.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.