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"Mrs. Santa' fondly recalls St. Petersburg

(ran East, South, West, Beach editions)

For 18 years, they were the elves who represented Santa and Mrs. Claus to thousands of people who jammed the brick streets off Coffee Pot Boulevard, hoping to see the jolly couple wave from the second floor of their house.

Health problems caused Rene and Florine Lajeunesse to cease the tradition in 1987. They moved to a house in the Tyrone area, then to a condominium in Gulfport. Rene Lajeunesse died in May 1992, and the couple's son Pierre died that October.

A decade later, 87-year-old Florine Lajeunesse is on a farewell tour of St. Petersburg, which she calls "the most beautiful city in the world."

These days she lives in Canada, in a nursing home in Grandy, near Montreal. She is terminally ill with cancer and heart problems, and her physician and family members urged her not to make the trip.

So did the ticket agent at Sears, where she purchased her plane ticket.

"Well," Lajeunesse said in a telephone interview on Thursday, "what I did was to put my name and what to do with me if I die in the plane.

"You know, when I arrived at (Tampa International Airport), I felt like the pope," she said through tears. "I threw myself on my knees and kissed the floor. I was so glad to be back in my St. Petersburg."

She has been to lunch at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and brunch at the Don CeSar. She saw We Were Soldiers at BayWalk. She wasn't crazy about the movie, but "BayWalk," she said, " is so beautiful. My, my, my."

Friday afternoon, she went to the museum of history, where she greeted old friends and donated photographs, scrapbooks and other mementos from the Mr. and Mrs. Santa heydays.

"They want to do a little display at the museum," she said.

Longtime friend Betty Blanks helped organize pictures and newspapers clippings and made sure people knew that Mrs. Santa would be available to receive guests.

The Lajeunesses began their tradition in 1969. She was a registered nurse and agreed to fill in at a nursing home for a couple of shifts during the holidays.

"When I arrived there and saw those poor patients, I said, "Oh, my God,' " Lajeunesse said. Many were alone and had no visitors. She invited everyone to a buffet at the couple's home.

The Lajeunesses added outdoor lights and a manger scene. Members of the Nova Civitan Club began to help distribute refreshments.

"We couldn't be on the second floor and the first floor at the same time," she said.

Tour buses arrived. Police were called to direct traffic. School bands and church choirs came to perform. Some of the neighbors grumbled about the noise and the cars.

People who were toddlers when the Lajeunesses greeted their first holiday visitors brought babies of their own to see Santa and Mrs. Claus.

"Something extraordinary happened inside my house," Lajeunesse said.

She went by the old place the other day and asked her friend to drive slowly.

"I was so tempted to knock on the door," she said, "but they might think someone is crazy."

On Tuesday, she'll take a flight back to Canada.

"It's going to be some clouds coming up, I'm afraid," she said. "It's going to be a rainy day, because it's going to be very hard to say farewell.

"I'm very happy to be in St. Petersburg for the last time," she said, emotion filling her voice. "I will come back in my coffin next time."

She wants to be forever in her St. Petersburg, near her husband and their son, in Calvary Cemetery.

Write to Mrs. Claus

Write to Florine Lajeunesse at Residence HN Parent, 610 Rue Bertrands St., Grandy, Quebec J2J2L3 Canada.