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Business leader Mary Belle Rogers dies

Mary Belle Rogers, founder of the Hernando County Fair and one of the first women to become prominent in local business and banking circles, died Tuesday.

Miss Rogers, who graduated from what is now Florida State University, managed Rogers Department Store for several years. She helped found First Federal Savings and Loan Association, which has since merged with AmSouth Bank, and served as one of its corporate officers for nearly 30 years.

She also served, at various times, as secretary, treasurer and vice president of the board of Rogers' Christmas House Village, owned by her sister, Margaret Ghiotto.

Miss Rogers also traveled extensively, Ghiotto said. It was on an around-the-world trip about 10 years ago that she was struck with the lung disease that eventually caused her death. She died Tuesday afternoon at the home she shared with her sister on Olive Street. Family members declined to give her age. Her funeral service is planned for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church of Brooksville.

Her long struggle against lung disease, family members said, was one of the most inspiring aspects of her life.

"If you had witnessed what she had gone through in recent months and years, you would realize what an extremely strong-willed person she was," said her nephew, Weiland Rogers.

Just days before her death, as she did every holiday season, "she was arranging for people to buy toys for the Salvation Army and cans for the First Methodist Church," her nephew said.

"She put up the biggest fight you ever saw," Ghiotto said. "You never saw such complete courage and strength. It has amazed everybody."

Miss Rogers was a social worker in New York for several years shortly after graduating from college. After returning to Brooksville, she managed her father's department store in downtown Brooksville.

In 1958, she was named as one of the original board members of First Federal, said Clarence Eppley, who was president and chief executive officer.

Eppley picked his board members carefully, he said, knowing he would be competing against Hernando State Bank, which was the only financial institution in the county and its most powerful business force.

"You had to have some people with some financial ability and resources. She was a good Christian person. She was a good businesswoman. She had a lot of business acumen," Eppley said.

"She was rather proud of the fact that she was the only female director on the board."

She liked politics, Ghiotto said, and used her political ability to round up community support for the fair, the first of which was held in 1950. Ten years later, she served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

"She was the power behind the fair, there's no doubt about that. You could always depend on Mary Belle to get things started," her sister said.

"She was an extremely outstanding person."