When Patrick Manteiga sat down to write his mother’s obituary, he didn’t skip the tough stuff. Louise “Peggie” Schmechel had lived what seemed like six lives in one, and they weren’t all easy.
“Peggie was born Sept. 11, 1932 in Atlanta, Georgia, to a hardworking but poor Irish family and lived in a small suburb of Ben Hill,” he wrote. “Due to her mother’s death when she was only five years old and the tough times, she wanted to get out of the house at a young age. She started working at Kress department store at the age of 11, lying that she was 16. At 13 she was married and became a mother to David at 14.”
Mrs. Schmechel got divorced, remarried and had three more children by 20. When that marriage ended, her ex-husband took three of her children with him.
She and her eldest moved to Florida, she married again, had another son, divorced, married again, got a Cadillac and a mink, moved to a farm and raised chickens. Eventually, she became the person who met the public at La Gaceta, the weekly newspaper that documented Tampa life in three languages.
Sometimes, obituaries feature the five-star moments, said her youngest, Manteiga, the owner and publisher of La Gaceta.
But in his mom’s case, the struggles and strife made her love fiercely. And they made her trust in the world all the more amazing.
Mrs. Schmechel died after a fall on Feb. 10. She was 88.
In Ybor City, the newsroom was once two blocks from King-Greco Hardware. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco remembers seeing Mrs. Schmechel in the neighborhood, smiling.
“That was like one giant family years ago,” he said.
By the mid-80s, Mrs. Schmechel’s ex-husband brought her back into the family business at La Gaceta as a bookkeeper, where she stayed for 20 years, working the front desk and greeting guests.
Granddaughter Erin Potter and her brother and sister lived with or beside their Nana. She ferried them to school and cared for them when their parents worked late at the paper.
They took summer trips to the beach with all of Mrs. Schmechel’s children and their families. And she made every holiday into a grand family gathering.
She didn’t get to raise all her children, Potter said, “but she did anything for us.”
People who live in glass houses...
When Gene Siudut started working at La Gaceta in 1999, he was 26. He went on to spend 20 years in the newsroom with Mrs. Schmechel, sharing lunch daily and listening to her stories.
“She had phrases I’d never heard,” Siudut said, and muddled quotes from her father.
“She would say, ‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t.’”
“You mean they shouldn’t throw stones?” Siudut would reply.
Nope, she’d fire back. They should not live in them at all.
Another: “If you stir poo with a stick, it’s gonna stink.” And on days when the weather in Tampa got a bit chilly: “Cold weather like this makes you wish you lived in Florida.”
Mrs. Schmechel invested in him and other young reporters, and she expected them to turn out okay.
“I’m sure it takes a village,” he said. “But you didn’t want to disappoint Peggie.”
She loved fiercely
When Angie Manteiga joined the family at 19, she found a mother-in-law who showed love in a way she wasn’t used to — hugs, kisses on the head, pecks on the cheek.
“You just got touched,” Angie said.
She eventually took that affection back to her own parents. Now, Angie’s father is in a nursing home, and “that’s all we do, touch.”
Mrs. Schmechel was well-dressed, loved a risque joke, and “had a cast-iron core in her,” Angie said.
At La Gaceta, she listened to complaints, “but sometimes she’d give it back to them if she felt it was unfair,” her youngest son said.
Mrs. Schmechel sent checks to charities that sent free address labels. She wouldn’t take anything for free. She listened to phone solicitors. If an ad said something was on sale, like a premium ham, it must be a good deal (and she did buy that ham.)
“She just could not believe that people were scammers,” Manteiga said.
His mother believed most people were good. And she found it in them.
“Loving somebody is the best you can do a lot of times for people,” Manteiga said. “Giving people unconditional love is what family’s about.”
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