TAMPA — Wearing a crisp pantsuit and a wide smile, Manuela Valenti arrived at the Dow Sherwood Village Inn Pancake House on Dale Mabry every morning before the sun rose.
She set to work instantly, tidying up the place for a fresh batch of hungry partygoers. By the time doors opened at 6 a.m., she had the tables and chairs scrubbed free of smudges, specks of dirt and fingerprints. Then for the next several hours, she stood at her post and cheerfully greeted scores of patrons who walked into the restaurant every day.
It was a ritual she followed for nearly 30 years, well into her 80s.
On Sept. 27, Mrs. Valenti died, leaving her family, close friends and numerous acquaintances with decades of memories. She was 98.
At 4 feet 10, she had a personality that easily filled any room.
"You just wanted to hug her all the time," said Margie Leppla, 52, a co-worker. "She was just one of those people that you couldn't help but love."
Mrs. Valenti remembered people, and they remembered her. Everywhere she went, they recognized the petite greeter, always immaculate, always smiling.
Once, someone called out to her on a random street in Barcelona, Spain.
"Hey, you're Mannie from the pancake house!"
Born in Ybor City, Mrs. Valenti was true to the warmth and hospitality characteristic of her Spanish heritage to the end. For her 98th birthday earlier this year, Leppla and others at the pancake house threw her a party.
As per habit, Mrs. Valenti played the gracious hostess, making sure everyone ate enough cake and had a good time.
She lived a full life, following her passions for music, people and travel.
At one point, she and her husband, Stephen, owned a cigar store in the Bronx. After his death in 1966, she moved back to Tampa.
She listened to classical music, played the piano and served as an organist for different Order of the Eastern Star chapters. She loved family gatherings and made sure she saved enough money every year for vacations.
She doted on her grandchildren. They, in turn, adored her.
For Shana Tirado, 44, the memories of her grandmother come in waves, too many to count.
Tirado can never forget their trip to New York years ago. They watched the Tap Dance Kid on Broadway and ate lunch at Central Park's Tavern on the Green.
"She didn't want to age," Tirado said. "Nothing slowed her down."
Once, she took Tirado to Paris. They traveled together for a month, discovering the city's historic, artistic and cultural wealth together.
After Mrs. Valenti's death, when family members began going through her things in her home at Bayshore Presbyterian Apartments, they found stacks of programs from plays and musicals she attended over the years, said Olga Alonso, 88, her second cousin and closest companion.
Even during her last years, her love for all things creative, for being out and about remained stronger than ever.
"She would come over and say, 'Where are we going today?' " Alonso said.
As much as Mrs. Valenti loved life, it threw a fair share of hardships her way.
The deaths of her husband, her only son, Frank, and a younger sister were just a few.
When she broke a hip more than a decade ago, she fought the pain bravely, declining excessive bed rest and refusing to use a walker or a cane.
She insisted on battling it all without breaking down.
After all, there was a lot she still wanted to do.
Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at (813) 661-2441 or email@example.com.