In 2007, county officials used a state grant to bring weavers from North Carolina to help seniors create artful tapestries. They incorporated eyeglass frames, poetry and pill bottles in the colorful cloth.
When it was finished, they hung the Aspects of Aging tapestry high on a wall at the Ruskin Senior Center, where it stayed for two years.
Then it vanished.
No one seemed to notice. After all, the tapestry - about 3 feet by 5 feet - had been hung above eye level.
No one mentioned the missing textile - until August, when several people received an anonymous letter entitled "Do we care so little about history and art?"
"I am upset," the letter began. "I am a senior taxpayer that has been going to Ruskin Senior Center for a long time. Recently, I witnessed the throwing out of a piece of Ruskin's history and some very nice art."
Thrown out? Who would throw away public art?
Public outcry ensued.
Ruskin resident Arthur "Mac" Miller, 70, was "somewhere between outraged and disappointed."
Arts Council director of education Lynn Norton, who secured the grant, was "livid."
"I just can't believe that somebody would look at something like this and consider it trash," she said.
And county senior center manager Mary Jo McKay was "shocked."
"We can't understand why," she said.
Some thought the tapestry may have been stolen. If that were the case, there would be hope of its return.
Two weeks ago, McKay started investigating. She found out that a Ruskin Senior Center employee removed the tapestry in February so Valentine's decorations could take its place. The employee noticed it was dusty and planned to clean it.
However, another employee threw it out. Neither was present when the tapestry was made, and it seemed they didn't understand its significance, McKay said.
But there were witnesses, she said. The letter-writer claimed to be one.
Why didn't any of them step forward and explain its history, McKay asked. Why didn't they report it to interim director Michelle Ingram when she returned the next day?
"I can't imagine that they would not call me," McKay said. That's what bothers her the most. She might have been able to prevent it.
After discovering the tapestry's fate, McKay immediately started retraining the staff, and she plans to talk to senior center visitors to encourage communication.
"I can tell you that we probably won't have a pencil thrown out in the future," McKay said.
She won't share the employee's name, but says the woman apologized profusely and admitted what she did was wrong. And even though the woman recently left her county position for another job, McKay wanted to protect her.
"People will think she's stupid," she said.
Anyway, nothing more can be done.
The tapestry is long gone, and because the grant covered the tapestry-making process and not the product (and because it was never incorporated in the county inventory), the county can't take any legal action.
"It was just a mistake," said Sheree Fish, an attorney in the County Attorney's Office.
"It was certainly unusual," she said. "But it was a mistake."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.