Emma Jo Jackson Larkins touched many lives as a teacher and business owner in Clearwater.
Annie Scrivens Battle is the woman she is today because of her home economics teacher. "When nobody else believed in me," Battle said, "she did."
Battle and about 300 others filtered into St. John Primitive Baptist Church on Thursday to remember Emma Jo Jackson Larkins.
An 81-year-old retired school teacher in the North Greenwood area, Mrs. Larkins died a week ago at Morton Plant Hospital after becoming ill, her sister Helen King said. Family members said they do not know the precise cause of death.
Mrs. Larkins held no fame nationwide. But among African-Americans in the Clearwater area, she was a shining star.
"Too often we fail to reflect upon the lives of ones who really made a difference in our community," said Isay Gulley, Mrs. Larkins' former student and neighbor. "Mrs. Larkins really made a difference." As owner to one of the first funeral homes in the North Greenwood community, Mrs. Larkins helped some people cope after the deaths of loved ones. As a teacher, she taught people like Battle how to be young ladies, always standing with their backs straight and their heads held high. To others, she was a surrogate mother, dispensing wisdom along with her German chocolate cakes and blueberry muffins.
"She always had faith in me," said Ronald Hamm, another former student who learned from Mrs. Larkins at Pinellas High School, where black students in North Pinellas learned before the school system was integrated.
"I was like a little mischievous child," Hamm said. "But she always told me I could be what I wanted to be."
Family members and friends insisted her funeral be a celebration, rather than a time for sadness. Some stood to give two-minute testimonials of how Mrs. Larkins touched their lives. One soloist gave an upbeat rendition of Precious Lord. Another young woman quoted Proverbs 31, the Bible passage that talks about a virtuous woman.
"I want you to know we've not come here to be sad," the Rev. Benjamin Adams Jr. said. "We are just experiencing the after-party."
Paul Hatchett was a counselor at Pinellas High when Mrs. Larkins taught. She was faithful, he said, and a businesswoman in a community where there were few. "She served well," Hatchett said. "Give her the honor."
Cecil B. Keene, a former principal at Pinellas High, came to pay his respects. Mrs. Larkins, he said, "was one of the finest teachers I ever had to serve under my principalship."
According to school records, Mrs. Larkins taught for Pinellas County Schools from 1940 to 1975. She and her husband, David, opened Larkins Funeral Home, one of the first funeral homes in the community. Mrs. Larkins closed the home about two years ago, after her husband and son died.
Robert Only worked at the funeral home for 34 years. Only _ known in the neighborhood as "Mr. Bow-legs," said he was hurt to learn of her death.
He said he can still hear Mrs. Larkins' voice saying in her last days: "Mr. Bow, I'm not going to be here."