PORT RICHEY — Walter Mallett thought he knew everyone in his tiny hometown in the Panhandle. But sometime while he was off fighting the war, a lovely young woman with a sweet cream complexion and an hourglass figure moved in. He noticed her one day while she was pumping gas into her car.
Distracted, Walter tripped and fell. She laughed at him for being so clumsy. The rest, as they say, is history.
This odd beginning of what would become a 69-year marriage allowed their family members a few moments of comfort as they laughed and cried at the same time.
"Walter literally fell for Frances,'' recalled daughter-in-law Pat Mallett.
Walter and Frances Mallett went on to become important, respected residents of Port Richey, where her grandfather had been the first settler in 1872. She earned widespread admiration as the area's premier historian. He earned recognition at one of the U.S. military's highest levels for heroism aboard an aircraft carrier struck by Japanese warplanes.
They shared everything in life, and so it seems in death. Frances, after a short illness, died on June 15 at age 97. Five days later, Walter joined her. He was 94.
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It might be considered a miracle that these two ever got together. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Walter left his family's commercial fishing business in Carrabelle to join the Navy. He was aboard the USS Ticonderoga on Jan. 21, 1945, during World War II, when fighter planes attacked off the coast of Formosa in the South Pacific. He rescued pilots and sailors on the deck before a second kamikaze plane struck the ship where he stood.
His wounds were extensive. In an interview in 2011, Walter said, "A dentist at the naval hospital in Jacksonville told me he was on the Ticonderoga and had assisted the doctor who treated me. He also said that they waited to treat me because they were trying to treat some of the men they thought would live. I fooled them, though.''
He spent 16 months in hospitals, most of the time in a body cast. The Navy awarded him the Silver Star for gallantry.
Frances had been in beauty school in Jacksonville when the war broke out. She had married George Blankenship, a World War I veteran who accepted a civilian job at Camp Gordon Johnston in Carrabelle, 20 miles east of Apalachicola. They had three children during a 12-year union that ended in 1948.
Walter returned home to resume his fishing business, but Frances convinced him to move to Port Richey, where she had grown up and where her father had left her some property. Walter started Tropical Realty with his brother and with Frances welcomed four children to the family — Walter Jr., Susan, Victor and Bob. A daughter from her previous marriage, Sandra Lee Werner, became a Pasco County commissioner.
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Frances blossomed at historical preservation, only natural considering her family's legacy in Florida that dates back to 1762 in St. Augustine. She was a seventh-generation Floridian. Her grandfather, James Washington Clark, was discharged from the Confederate army in South Carolina after the Civil War and followed a friend to Ocala to work cattle. He built his own cattle business near Brooksville and moved it to Port Richey because his herd kept making its way to the rich salt deposits near the coast.
Frances' father, Victor Malcolm Clark, was the first elected mayor of Port Richey, in 1925. He and Lonnie Lee Nicks had five children, Frances the final survivor.
Frances contributed photos and other pioneer artifacts to the West Pasco Historical Society and to Jeff Miller's online history, fivay.org. In 2008, she collaborated with Miller to prove that a long-forgotten family member had been killed in the line of duty as a special deputy. Her grandfather, Henry Robert Nicks, was a marshal sent to arrest a man at a sawmill near Hudson. His son, Sheldon Nicks, jumped in front of a bullet meant for his father on May 8, 1909. Ninety-nine years later, his name was finally included on law enforcement memorials in Tallahassee and Pasco County.
Just last year, Frances recorded a video for the historical society. Her family marveled at her ability to remember names and details. In a photo from a 1928 gathering at Nicks Park, for instance, she identified all 30 to 40 people in attendance.
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In June, at the house they shared for the past 37 years, Frances' flowers remained in bloom. She excelled at gardening, concentrating on plants that could thrive in the Florida heat and humidity. She spent at least 15 minutes each day tending her garden, even if it meant pushing a walker through the soil. She preached the value of getting 15 minutes of sun on your face each day, and her complexion radiated even at 97.
As their time grew near, she planned their funeral service. Hospice workers and family members kept the couple comfortable at home. After Frances passed, Walter told his children he would be going soon but wanted to make it past Father's Day.
"He was fine with everything," said son Victor.
Two days later, in a bed his family had positioned so the old sailor could see the water outside, he joined his Frances.