TAMPA — Lorena Jaeb never met a stranger.
That always stunned her son Steve Jaeb. He remembers running errands with his mother as a child, and how she would stop and have long conversations with people in grocery aisles or department stores.
And they would really talk, he said.
"Mom, who was that?" he would ask. She didn't know, yet it sounded like she knew the passer-by her whole life. At parties, her late husband would crack jokes as he waited at the door because she took so long to say her goodbyes.
Steve Jaeb said she was like Ronald Reagan: Everyone liked her. It's that quality that helped Lorena Jaeb build the Republican Party in Hillsborough County and become an enduring figure in political circles nationally.
Mrs. Jaeb died May 20. She was 96.
She spent her later years devoted to politics and philanthropy, after building and selling the Shop & Go convenience store chain with her late husband, Robert Jaeb.
She and her husband donated millions, including a gift that helped establish the endowment fund for the David. A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, where a theater is named for the couple. Robert Jaeb died about a decade ago at 94.
Mrs. Jaeb was a devoted Christian and conservative Republican who used her faith as a compass. At Mrs. Jaeb's instigation, she and her husband helped fund local and state candidates at a time when Democrats still dominated Florida.
The couple preferred to stay out of public view but knew a lot of national "big shots," according to local Republican leader Dee Williams.
"She was a very principled person, as nice as can be, but with strong feelings about what government ought to be about," said former Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican who also served as Tampa's mayor. "She left her mark on a number of institutions here in Tampa. In the early stages of fundraising, you would find her there."
In the early 2000s, after Republicans took control statewide, Mrs. Jaeb supported a conservative movement in east Hillsborough County that seized control from more moderate party members.
She helped local candidates such as Tax Collector Doug Belden, who won office in 1998. Two years later, she backed Stacey Easterling, whose upset of incumbent Democrat Ben Wacksman gave Republicans a majority on the County Commission, said east Hillsborough activist and donor Sam Rashid. Easterling later married her son John Jaeb, 56.
The Jaebs were among the leading contributors to the Republican Party in Florida, according to Steve Jaeb, 53. The Center for Public Integrity reported the Jaebs made $114,210 in contributions to the Republican Party of Florida during the 2000 election cycle.
"She changed the face of the party in this county," Rashid said. "It went from being a close-knit, exclusive group to a more open and inclusive organization as a result of the revolution that she largely financed."
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Williams said it was during the Reagan years that the local party really got off the ground. But Williams said Mrs. Jaeb contributed to the national and state party before that.
"She was never one to toot her own horn," Williams said.
Mrs. Jaeb also cared for children and the disabled. She helped fund groups that taught trades to people with Down syndrome and spread Christianity around the world.
She was born in Valrico in 1920. She didn't come from much, her son said, and never forgot about the struggles her family endured during the Great Depression.
"She was dignified but down to earth," Steve Jaeb said.
Mrs. Jaeb graduated from Brandon High School in 1939. She got a degree in nursing from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta two years later. By 1941, she was married to Robert Jaeb, whom she met at a community dance.
While her husband fought in World War II, Mrs. Jaeb ran his grocery store with her sister-in-law. By 1960, she and her husband opened their first Stop & Go convenience store. In 1971, they went public and developed a 450-store chain before selling it in 1985.
Mrs. Jaeb served as the company's executive vice president, working just as many hours as her husband.
"She was clearly a trailblazer in the time she grew up," John Jaeb said.
The couple waited to have their two boys once their 80-hour workweeks started to die down and their business became more established. Both of her sons described a loving mother and gracious woman.
She was giving to friends, too. She regularly gave out books. Come Christmas, especially, everyone got a gift.
"I would say, 'Momma, are you buying gifts for the whole state of Florida?' " Steve Jaeb recalled.
It was after they sold the business that the couple became major donors.
In 1999, they donated $1 million for a new student center and expanded library at the University of Tampa. They gave $1.5 million to the Straz Center. Straz Center CEO Judy Lisi said Mrs. Jaeb served on the center's board of directors. Her son John Jaeb now serves as part of the Straz Center's foundation, Lisi said.
A theater in the Straz Center bears the couple's names: the Robert and Lorena Jaeb Theater. It's a permanent reminder of the couple's generosity.
"Their names will always be there," Lisi said.
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.