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Feast for eyes: Nutcrackers on parade

Rowena Walsh had just finished serving breakfast to a group of regulars at the Country Skillet Restaurant - 20 retired Honeywell engineers - when one of the guys stated the obvious.

"It takes a very energetic person," said Phil Kittelson, 73, of Seminole. "We may have aged her 20 years."

Hardly, says Walsh, 70.

Walsh says her 21 years at the Country Skillet have kept her healthy and young. In return, she fills the restaurant with whimsy and spirit, especially at this time of year.

Walsh decorates for all the major holidays - Christmas, Easter and Halloween. Between holidays, she has roosters and country fare on display at the restaurant, at 2839 Roosevelt Blvd.

"I'm a collector," she said. "I've got miniature spoons, Norman Rockwell plates."

And 178 nutcrackers.

Her favorite is her first, a chimney sweep complete with broom that her first husband gave her for Christmas 52 years ago.

"All nutcrackers have a profession," she said. "I have one that's a mailman ..."

Other professions she has include soldier, knight, king, Santa, snowman, football player and more. Some are female, like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. There's the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, as well as rabbits and bears.

Her other favorites were gifts like an American Indian and Santa coming up a chimney.

Five of her nutcrackers are actually incense burners and smoke comes out of the figures' mouths.

She said the first nutcrackers were made by hand in Switzerland and Germany. And some have secret drawers. And the ones that say "Germany" on them are older than the ones that say "West Germany."

Around Halloween, customers start asking when the "soldiers" will go, Walsh said. Last year, she left them up until she put up the Easter decorations.

"She does a heck of a job with the decorations," said regular Ron Little of Pinellas Park, 62. "She's always the one frilling around."

The nutcrackers are nice, but Walsh's Halloween traditions are what these men like. Jay Heath of Largo, 50, said Walsh dressed up like a "biker chick," tattoos and all, again this year.

"She looked like she was straight out of Daytona," he said.

"If you can pin her down," said Little, "she can tell some wild and wicked stories."

One she likes to tell is more romantic than wicked, though set in a biker bar.

Table for two, please

Ray Walsh, 70, of Clearwater has been a customer at the Country Skillet for 22 years, a year longer than Rowena Walsh has waited tables there. For most of that time, each was married to someone else.

After 42 years of marriage and raising two children, Rowena Walsh's first husband died in 1995. Within months, Ray Walsh's wife died, too. Somehow, neither knew about the other's loss.

A few years later, Rowena Walsh said she "went looking" at a biker hangout and there he was.

"I didn't know you had a bike," she said, admiring his Harley.

They married in 1999, on Christmas Eve.

For the holiday, he decorates outside their home. Inside, there are no nutcrackers.

"Can't afford any more there," he said.

In the holiday spirit

In Santa hat, Mark Higgins of Seminole, 42, sat down and picked up a menu. A salesman, he said he wears the hat through the holiday season to bring a few smiles to people in stress.

"Somebody's got a really good collection," he said, looking up at the nutcrackers. Walsh told him they were hers.

"All right," he said, "Let's do a Western omelette with the vegetables well-done ..."

Behind the cash register, Walsh started up her mechanical bear band. While they played a Coke song in perfect harmony, server Debbie Dean, 54, danced and rang up a check.

This Christmas, Walsh will likely unwrap more nutcrackers. She figures she'll have 200 by next year.

Steve Trizis, who owns the Country Skillet with his wife, Bonnie, has asked her what will become of the nutcrackers when she retires.

"I'm never going to retire," she tells him. "The day I can't get out of bed is when I retire."

In the meantime, she said, "we may have to put up a new shelf."