Published: May 6, 2008
Updated: June 1, 2013 at 09:12 AM
ODESSA - The news, in an 8:45 a.m. phone call, hit like a death in the family."There's been a takeover," Helen Rosburg's sister and fellow Wrigley chewing-gum company heiress said April 28 when Rosburg picked up the phone at her northwest Hillsborough County estate."I felt like somebody just punched me in the stomach." Rosburg said. "The company was created for family to take care of family and, always, some male family member would head the company. To lose it was kind of getting your anchor rope cut."She grieved the buyout of the company her great-grandfather, William J. Wrigley Jr., founded in 1891.Once the $23 billion deal goes through, candymaker Mars Co., with financing help from investor Warren Buffett, will make Wrigley its subsidiary. Wrigley family members will lose their equity in the company.Rosburg allowed herself to grieve for two days. No more.For this 59-year-old Wrigley heiress has been through other grief of late, what with the second battle with breast cancer, the double mastectomy in 2006, then the stroke.She survived all that. She'll survive this quite nicely, thanks to the $80 a share she'll get for the Wrigley stock held in trusts for her. (She won't say how much.)Besides, she has a publishing company to run, romantic novels to write, and a menagerie of rescued animals and retired show horses to dote on at her 85-acre estate.In 2007, Rosburg, her husband and her 18-year-old daughter traded in a Palm Beach manor for the 11,000-square-foot home they built here: "Tara Meets Key West," as her husband, James, calls it.It's a startling sight, looming off Gunn Highway just south of Pasco County.Rosburg is a bit of a sight herself. Garish tattoos swathe her left arm: from shoulder to elbow, from inner elbow to well-jeweled wrist.The Blue Devil tattoo gallery in Ybor City put them there. The forearm tattoo is 8 months old and part of her post-mastectomy recovery process. It features a hand clenching a rope with the word "ENDURE."The shoulder-to-elbow number came a couple of months later: a lightning storm where raindrops turn into musical notes: "Don't just Survive - SING!"She's thinking about a third tattoo - for her back."The whole family is absolutely horrified," she said. "This is not something a Wrigley family member does."Rebel's Way Of LifeBeing a rebel, however, is not something new for her.Helen Atwater Rich was born in Chicago - Wrigley family and company headquarters - to George and Deedie Rich.Deedie was the daughter of Helen and Philip Wrigley, son of the company founder. She had a privileged life. She spent vacations at her grandparents' Lake Geneva, Wis., estate, and on Catalina Island: the Wrigley family-owned island 20 miles from Los Angeles.The family donated much of it to a conservancy in 1975, but many family members, including Rosburg, still own homes there.Even as a first-grader, Helen Rich saw things differently. She wrote her first book then - an eight-page construction-paper piece called "How the Woodpecker Got His Red Head."The answer from the first-grader's tome? "It involved a gory moment."After her parents' divorce, she moved with her mother to Arizona. At age 16, she moved in with her father in Palm Beach, attended school there and met William DeGray, her high school sweetheart.She went to Stephens College, a private school in Columbia, Mo., to study theater for a year, but hated academic life. Ironically, she returned to Arizona and married an academic: Robert Wood, a physics whiz who became a professor."I met him through my parents. I was a wild child, and they approved of this guy," said Rosburg, who gave birth to her first son, Erik, in Boston before they divorced and she returned to Arizona.She rebelled upon her return."I refused any help from my family because I didn't want them to own me," she said. "I got a really cheap apartment and went to work scrubbing dog kennels in a veterinary clinic."After she crashed her Honda motorcycle - today she rides Harleys - an engineer named Charles Holmes cared for her. They married. That lasted 13 years. During that time, she worked as a veterinary technician at a private practice in Arizona.In 1985, her father, back in Palm Beach, fell gravely ill. She returned to care for him. She fell in love with William DeGray, her high school sweetheart. She divorced her husband and married DeGray, a builder, a month later.She stayed in Palm Beach, where they had two children, Will and Ali.A dozen years later, they divorced as she recovered from her first battle with breast cancer. During that time, she met John Rosburg, an abstract sculptor whose 6-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor.They shared their pain and their love of art. They married in 1997.About the same time, they began making temporary escapes from Palm Beach - to Lutz.Blueblood Favors BluegrassAnother passion drew them here: American saddlebreds. Rosburg's sister, Misdee, an Ocala-based horse breeder who was moving her stables to Kentucky, introduced Rosburg to trainer Ruth Gimpel of Lutz. Rosburg hired her to train her growing stable of show horses and to teach her daughter, Ali, to ride.The newlywed Rosburg began pursuing all her passions at full throttle. She published her first romantic novel - "Call of the Trumpet" - with horses as a backdrop, as they have been in every novel since.The Rosburgs spent weekends at an apartment in Lutz to be near the horses. In 1999, they bought a home near the stables and she published "Honor Bound," a second romantic novel with horses.In 2001, she bought the property where they built the three-story Odessa mansion.She started Medallion Press, her own publishing company, a couple of years later. It was another passion of hers, creating books. Not just writing them. But creating beautiful covers for them as well. "After I became a published author, I wanted more. I am absolutely, totally obsessed with books."On her Odessa spread, all her passions have come together. Her family is here, except on school nights, when Ali, a University of Tampa art student, stays at a South Tampa town house.Her office, where she creates her books, is upstairs.Her animals are everywhere: There are the four rescued pigs, three potbellied, the other a hefty-tusked hog who had to be rescued because his original owner thought he was a lower-to-the-ground potbellied pig.There are the five miniature Brahman cattle. The miniature donkey. The rabbits. The hens. Fred, the pet turkey. The four fainting goats. The retired horses.In the house, where nearly every room features ceramic or stuffed animals or animal portraits, there also are many live versions:The three dogs. The macaws, the parrot and the lovebirds in the aviary. The three cats upstairs in her bedroom - and all the rest of the cats, most of whom lounge downstairs next to the wine cooler and the fur closet.How many cats actually live here?"Who knows? Eleven?" Rosburg shoots a questioning glance at her house manager, who rolls her eyes and shakes her head in confirmation.Her passions apparently are hard to keep track of.How many bedrooms and bathrooms are in the mansion, she's asked as she provides a tour: "Seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms. I think," she says, then thinks again. "No. Six bedrooms, nine bathrooms."How many show horses does she keep at Ruth Gimpel's stable?"A dozen, maybe."Gimpel, the trainer and close friend who is responsible for hooking Rosburg up with a half-dozen of her rescued cats and the rescued pigs, sets the record straight: "She has 16 show horses."From the moment Gimpel first met Rosburg, she was impressed with the Wrigley heiress's friendly, down-to-earth approach with animals and with people. "I have grooms at the stable and very wealthy owners," Gimpel said. "She treats the grooms just like the owners. She treats everyone the same."Like a true Wrigley, Rosburg owns homes all over the place: on Catalina Island; in Brisbane, Australia, where her oldest son lives. She keeps an apartment in Palm Beach so she can visit her other son there. But she sold her home there when she moved to Odessa."Palm Beach was not for me. I was just a fish out of water," said Rosburg, adding that Odessa will be her last stop. "I'm done. This is it. I love Tampa. It's a beautiful city. I love Ybor, and I love the culture. Palm Beach thinks it's so cultured" - she pushes up the tip of her nose with a finger - "but the art community here is just wonderful."Here, there are real art geeks and book geeks and music geeks. People go to the arts for the art. Not to be photographed in their gowns and jewels."Not that she's averse to a jewel or two.As she's out hugging her pet turkey in the dusty barn he shares with nearly a dozen guinea hens or cuddling one of favorite goats, the heiress side of her still sparkles. She wears 4-inch diameter diamond hoops in her ears. And a trio of bling blaze bright from her left ring finger, just inches below the tattoo.An engagement ring, perhaps?The center round diamond, nestled between two pear-shaped stones, is a 7-carat hand-me-down that once belonged to her great-grandmother, Ada Blanche Wrigley, wife of company founder William Wrigley Jr. She never met them. They died before she was born. But stock holdings or no, they're still a part of her.Rosburg smiles as she gazes at the ring in her parlor, near a photograph of her mother dancing next to chum Ronald Reagan at his first presidential inaugural ball."That's me," she says. "Tattoos, diamonds and jeans."