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Civic activist spreads optimism

When Madelyn LaBelle was growing up in small-town Illinois, a lot of girls wanted to be flight attendants.

LaBelle was no different. She admired their freedom, their sense of adventure, their financial independence.

But an elementary school teacher who asked LaBelle and her classmates to write about their futures looked over LaBelle's report and noticed more than just a schoolgirl's fascination with flight attendants. The teacher remarked on LaBelle's natural sensitivity.

"She said, "You'd be very good in social work,' " recalled LaBelle, 73. "That always stuck with me."

She eventually became a social worker, spending 16 years with the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, now called the Department of Children and Families.

The longtime University North resident retired in the late 1990s. But her roots in her troubled community, the focus of a major urban renewal effort, ran deep. She became a familiar face on local volunteer boards and at community events.

Her simple, one-story brick house on N 19th Street is one of the nicest homes in the neighborhood, a symbol of pride in an area where officials are promoting home ownership as one cure for blight.

LaBelle took a winding path to get to this point in her life.

A talented pianist who graduated from a conservatory in Zion, Ill., she was married at 22. She and her husband had five children. But a divorce prompted LaBelle to move to Florida, where a friend helped her land a job managing a fast food restaurant.

Feeling unfulfilled, she soon quit. For the next seven years, she divided her time between morning tennis games and part-time work at a local motorcycle shop. She helped organize motorcycle races and took four extended trips through Europe on fancy touring bikes.

"That was the highlight of my life, really," she said of her adventures in Germany, France, Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia.

When she reached 40, LaBelle started thinking about a full-time career that would offer benefits, including a pension. She applied for a job with the state and was hired.

Although she spent 16 years with HRS, she mainly worked with adults rather than children _ certifying people for food stamps and helping them get psychiatric and other medical care.

In her late 60s, LaBelle left for a slightly less busy life consisting of home, friends and church. She still plays piano at the First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace.

Around that time, federal money began rolling into University North through the Weed and Seed program. LaBelle served on Weed and Seed's advisory board, a position she kept when the program was regrouped as the University Community Resource Center. The center works closely with the University Area Community Center on 22nd Street.

She helps organize events such as antidrug marches and Halloween parties, and assists with an annual back-to-school night where parents and kids pick up free school supplies.

"Marilyn brings a grass roots perspective of the pulse of the community (and) a wealth of historic knowledge," said Lucious Davis, manager of the University Community Resource Center. "She follows through. Many people join agencies or organizations because it looks good. But when it gets down to working, Marilyn rolls her sleeves up."

Across the street from LaBelle's house, a rundown apartment complex is undergoing a major renovation. From her perspective, it's a sign that University North can change.

"I have a lot of people who walk by here and say, "Oh, your house looks so nice,' " she said. "I think it's getting better."

_ Josh Zimmer covers Keystone/Odessa, University North and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 269-5314 or