CLEARWATER — Ruth Black Tharin lived a life built on stories, from her rich family history that shaped much of Tampa and Pinellas to her love of novels and Southern charm that were lasting vestiges of a bygone era.
Tharin, 89, died Tuesday in Dunedin, holding the hand of her younger sister, Nancy Wheatley, 88, a sign of their enduring bond.
She was a straight-laced, congenial Southern woman, raised on home cooking and hospitality like the genteel protagonists in her beloved Danielle Steel novels. But underneath her quiet, demure demeanor was a voracious reader with a discerning mind and a stalwart optimism, which she inherited as the sixth generation of a pioneer Clearwater family that traces back to 1841, said her son, Robert Tharin Jr., of Palm Harbor.
Born Nov. 12, 1924, in Clearwater, Ruth Tharin was raised on the stories of her family’s accomplishments, built on women who overcame diseases, wars and other hardships in the early days of Florida. Her grandfather, John H. Drew, acquired land as a real estate developer and citrus farmer and in 1928 sold 160 acres to Tampa for the Drew Field Municipal Airport. During WW II, the airport became the Drew Field Army Air Corps base. The field was returned to the city in 1945 and was renamed Tampa International Airport in 1952.
Her grandmother, Addie Drew, was honored for her contributions to the community by the naming of Drew Street, and her widowed great-great-great-grandmother Nancy Drew is credited with building the first house in Clearwater.
As Tampa began to transform from a farm community to a metropolis, Ruth Tharin and her sisters would retreat to a small cottage on Rocky Point where weekends were spent fishing and reading. She was known for her good grades and quick mind, her love of children and her compassion for others.
“Growing up, we were always together as a family,” Robert Tharin Jr. said. “People would come from all over to spend a couple months in the summer in a couple small framed cottages my grandmother owned on Clearwater Beach, eating big Southern meals mom would cook and hosting anybody that happened to come into town.”
But life wasn’t always easy for the Drew family. Her mother, Ailene Black, was divorced and worked hard to provide for her four daughters as the first office manager and staffing director for the doctors that started Morton Plant Hospital. While her mother worked long hours at the hospital, and after her father’s sudden death, Ruth Tharin adopted the role of family cook and caregiver for her sisters. For Wheatley, she was a best friend, mother and role model. She even screened Wheatley’s potential dates to make sure they were proper young men.
“When she was only 10 years old she would go to the grocery store to buy everything we needed for the house, and they would have to pull out a big box for her to stand on so she could see over the counter,” Wheatley said. “We couldn’t have gotten along without her, and I was always right by her side. She gave me such a good life.”
After graduating from Clearwater High School in 1942 and enrolling at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., she married high school sweetheart Robert Tharin Sr. in December 1946 and became a housewife, raising a son and daughter, Patricia.
However, her appetite for education continued to grow. After her children went to college, she went back herself in 1960 at age 36, earning an education degree in library sciences from the University of South Florida in one of the university’s first graduating classes. Almost immediately she found work at her alma mater, Clearwater High School, where she was a librarian for 12 years.
“She was always determined to finish college, and reading was the great love of her life,” her son said. “I remember her sisters used to trade books back and forth, with these huge lumpy packages sent in the mail. Whenever she found something she loved, she immediately wanted to share it with family and friends.”
She is predeceased by her sisters, Stella Rae Morgan and Mary Alice Bartlett. She is survived by Wheatley, her husband and children; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs.
“She lived here her whole life and never ever had a desire to move away,” her son said. “This was her home.”