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Published May 20, 2011

Shortly after Annetta Rigau died, her family found a note she had written years ago. It listed her seven passions: family, reading, traveling, horses, gardening, hiking and learning.

She immersed herself in those passions from the time she was a young girl until the days just before she died May 4 of a brief illness. She was 86.

Even the people closest to her had trouble understanding how she found the time and energy to do so much. Her kids and her grandkids were involved in high school and college sports, and she hardly missed any of their games. She owned two ranches where she raised Arabian horses. She earned a degree in anthropology when she was in her 40s and was still enrolled at the University of South Florida at the time of her death. She volunteered with countless community groups and did missionary work in Honduras. Just recently, in her mid 80s, she joined her family on a boating and camping trip down the Suwannee River.

"She was the one who could start the fire," her son Roger Rigau said. "She could start a fire with sticks or with a magnifying glass or whatever was around."

Mrs. Rigau grew up on her family's cattle ranch in Arcadia. Starting when she was just 12 or 13, she would join the other ranch hands on cattle drives. She was the only young woman among a group of men on drives across the state, but she never let them show her any special treatment.

In high school she excelled in sports and drama. When she graduated, a Hollywood agent urged her to move out West and pursue a movie career.

"They actually had some movie roles they wanted her to do," her son said.

But instead of being a Hollywood starlet, she decided to become a Tampa nurse. She was working at the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital one night in 1942 when a police detective named Abel Rigau came in. He had been hit on the head with a hammer.

She disliked him immediately. She was a pretty young woman, and the detective unsubtly eyed her from head to toe. Still, when he invited her to join him on a stakeout, it was too exciting an opportunity to pass up.

The stakeout turned out to be a ruse.

"It turned out she was the one being staked out," Roger Rigau said.

She soon changed her opinion of the young detective. They married in 1946. Many years later, she would say that her love for her husband was like a burning in her stomach. She was only in her 50s when he died, but it never occurred to her to date another man.

Her husband left police work and studied law at the University of Miami. For a short time the couple and their two young children lived in Cuba, just before Fidel Castro took over. There was something clandestine about the work Abel Rigau did there, and even today his son and daughter aren't sure of its nature.

In 1955, the family returned to Tampa and later built one of the first houses in Carrollwood.

"She was the cool mom," her son said. "Whenever we went anywhere, all my friends wanted to ride with her."

She enrolled at the University of Tampa, then USF in the 1960s. She earned a degree in anthropology and went by herself to live among the Seminoles in South Florida. She made a documentary film of her experiences there that the University of Miami borrowed and used for many years.

She indulged her love of horses on her Naibara Arabian Horse Farm in Citrus Park. She traveled all over the United States, Europe and the Caribbean, stood atop the Great Wall of China and hiked most of the Appalachian Trail by herself when she was in her 60s.

She returned to nursing when she was in her 60s. She worked at St. Joseph's Hospital, which is where she died.

She was still fit, walking and gardening every day, when she became ill. She was hospitalized for less than two weeks before she died. The family is still not sure about the exact cause of death.

In her last days, even when she sensed death was near, she was calm. I've had a great life, she'd say, no regrets. Her Christian faith even made her excited about finding out what was on the other side.

"She was fine with dying," her son said. "It was no problem for her at all. But I thought I'd have another five or 10 years with her."

Besides her son, Mrs. Rigau is survived by her daughter Beverly Rigau Smeltzer, five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at