Remembering Eleanor McKay: Gasparilla Queen
Born and raised in Tampa, the three McKay sisters could not have been more different from one another. Mary Irene, the eldest, was strong-willed. Charlotte “Totty,” the youngest, was always the life of the party. And the middles sister, Eleanor, was the peacemaker. Nevertheless, the sisters were close to one another from both a logistical and personal standpoint. With her diplomatic personality trait, it will come as no surprise that Eleanor would become a member of the royal court as the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla Queen in 1937 as well as the inaugural Queen of Cypress Gardens.
The Life and Times of a Gasparilla Queen
Recently, the Gasparilla Queen’s daughter and grand-daughter sat down to share stories about the life and times of the family’s matriarch, who died at the age of 104.
“During World War II, while my father served the country, my mother kept busy serving on the Children’s Home Auxiliary and volunteering with numerous other efforts,” shared Eleanor “Ann” Olmstead. “And every day she mailed a different joke to my father to keep his spirits up.”
Eleanor’s husband, John C. “Jack” Peters, was ultimately stationed in England but helped plan hthe infamous “Doolittle Raid,” named after Lt. Col. James Doolittle. During the April 18, 1942 war skirmish, B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet in order to strike targets around Tokyo. It became one of the most celebrated victories during the war and was even featured in the 1944 award-winning movie titled “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”
After the war ended, Lt. Col. Doolittle and General Allard periodically came to the Peters’ house for a visit and dinner. “I distinctly remember General Allard’s visits as he was so tall,” added Ann.
Married life was blissful for the Peters until the mid to late 1950s. “My father survived the war only to contract atypical tuberculosis, which led him to be quarantined in the TB hospital in Tampa. At the time, it was located where the campus of Hillsborough Community College is now.”
Times were difficult for Eleanor as she worried about the health of her husband, ran a household and took care of her mother who had moved into her home due to failing health. Thankfully, Jack recovered and family life returned to normal.
Over the years, Eleanor and Jack were quite involved in the Tampa community from a philanthropic perspective. They were primary donors and orchestrated the fundraising efforts for the stadium lights for the soon to be constructed Robinson High School stadium. Although the school was open, the stadium was not. So Robinson played their “home” games at Plant High School on dates of Plant’s away games. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, while heading to the concession stand at a Robinson vs. Lakeland football game at Plant, Jack had a massive heart attack and died. Sadly, Eleanor was sitting in the stands at the time. The Robinson High School stadium currently remains named “Jack Peters Field” in his honor.
“After the death of my grandfather, my grandmother basically became a single parent and went to work. She was able to keep the family company afloat with some help,” Michele Craig went on to say.
Later in Life
Despite the bad things that happened to her, Eleanor was always able to focus on the here and now — enjoying life to the fullest. She remarried two other times: William “Bill” Maurer and Harry Morris when she was in her 70s.
“My grandmother or GG, as she was affectionately known to the younger members of the family and friends, inspired so many with her inviting presence, impeccable grace, humor and kindness,” continued Michele.
Both Ann and Michele related a story that was quintessential Eleanor. “After her last surviving sister died, my mother decided it was time to purchase a burial plot and create her headstone. She was about 82 at the time. After meeting with the stonemason, my mother had the man make her tombstone. She included the following quote by Alfred Lord Tennyson: ‘I am a part of all I have met.’ My mother wanted to list all the names of her husbands, but also made it perfectly clear that her spouses had all died … she never divorced,” said Ann.
Michele continued with a giggle, “On the headstone, my grandmother demanded that a space be left underneath Harry Morris … just in case, she married a fourth time.”
Hospice Care in the End
For the most part, Eleanor remained healthy until she became a centenarian and the side effects of the aging process caught up with her.
“In the end, we wanted my mother to be as comfortable as possible with what time she had left in this world. Thankfully, she was admitted to the inpatient unit at Tampa General Hospital, where the staff helped in ways that I could not,” confessed Ann.
“Honestly, I was worried about how my mother would be able to care for my grandmother. The hospice staff members are the experts in guiding people at the end of life. My grandmother had the peaceful end to her life that she deserved,” added Michele.
Room 12 at the LifePath Hospice inpatient unit at Tampa General Hospital will always be fondly remembered as Eleanor’s Room, Gasparilla Queen.
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About Phoebe Ochman
Phoebe Ochman, Director of Corporate Communications for Chapters Health System, manages all content and communications for the not-for-profit organization.
History of Tampa’s Pirate Invasion
Across the United States, there are parades that traditionally take place at various times throughout the year: New York City is known for its Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and skyscraper-high balloons, Pasadena for the Rose Parade and its floral floats and lastly Tampa for Gasparilla and its pirate invasion.
Outsiders and newcomers to the area often wonder about the origins of the annual event. The tradition of Gasparilla can be traced back to the 18th century when a rogue by the name of José Gaspar wreaked havoc in Tampa Bay by seizing and robbing ships with his merry band of pirates. Their escapades continued until the pirates decided to retire from thievery. The last heist perpetrated by Gaspar and his crew was laying siege to an incognito U.S. Navy ship, which needless to say did not end well for the pirates.
Over the years, the legend of José Gaspar grew. In 1904, the Tampa civic community made the decision to create a celebratory event to commemorate the naval victory over the pirates. In the beginning, meetings were held in secret in order to create a pirate crew of masked marauders who would be responsible for surprising the residents of the city on horseback. These night riders birthed the first Gasprilla krewe, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.
Today there are more than 50 krewes that participate in the pirate invasion of Tampa Bay. Gasparilla festivities include a reenactment of the Tampa Bay invasion by the scallywag, José Gaspar, sailing into the bay on his fully-outfitted pirate ship. The mayor is forced to relinquish the keys to the city, the pirates take over and all sorts of shenanigans ensue.
Additionally, Gasparilla is not limited to one parade and one day. The week before the invasion and main parade there is the Gasparilla Children’s Parade. Two weeks after the weekend of Gasparilla, there is the night parade — also known as the Sant’Yago Illuminated Knight Parade taking place in Ybor City. And lastly, throughout the first couple of months of the year the Gasparilla Distance Classic, the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the Gasparilla Music Festival and the Gasparilla International Film Festival take place.