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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Riverview cemetery is her mission

GIBSONTON - At 77 years old, you'd think Florence Sikes would be taking it easy. But that's not something she plans to do any time soon. For the past 17 years, she's made it her mission to keep a 126-year-old cemetery in Riverview from falling to ruin. "I have 13 relatives buried at Riverview-Hackney Cemetery," she said. "Eventually my sister, her children and her grandchildren will be there, and so will I. I'm going to be sure it's taken care of." When she first began visiting in 1964, when her brother's baby died shortly after birth, it was simply to place flowers on graves and pay respect to her kin. At the time, Sikes became bothered by a general lack of upkeep.
"There was no fence around it and semi trucks were parking overnight right on the cemetery grounds," she said. "I immediately started asking people for money to put a fence up and doing what I could with the help of family members and friends, including relatives of people buried there." But no one was officially in charge of Hackney, which was cared for by residents "as best they could," said Sikes. When Serenity Meadows bought property adjacent to Hackney in 1997, part of its agreement with the state and county was to maintain the cemetery's eight acres, install headstones, maintain records and open and close graves. At Christmas 2002, Sikes went to visit her gravesites and found the sand road washed out. She couldn't get to her brother's site without driving over other graves, so she got out and walked. "I said to myself at the time 'Why doesn't someone do something about this road?' and a tiny little voice said 'Why don't you?'" Sikes called a friend for advice, found someone to do the paving and collected $25,000 to pay for the project. The same year, she founded Hackney Cemetery Trust Inc. The following year she was concerned about the level of care Hackney was receiving, so she started organizing two annual community cleanups to supplement Serenity's ongoing maintenance. Last year, when the original fence was in serious disrepair, she raised $5,000 to completely replace it. Sikes was born in Okeechobee, a sixth generation Floridian. She graduated from Pahokee High School "the same school as Mel Tillis" and then attended two years of business school in West Palm Beach. Then her life changed. Sikes' sister Esther died in a car accident with her husband, leaving behind a 14-month-old daughter. Her parents eventually got custody of the child and moved to Riverview in 1955. "I stayed home, while both my parents worked to help raise her," Sikes said. When her mother went to work for Hav-A-Tampa Cigar Company the following year, Sikes followed. The two alternated shifts to care for the child. Sikes worked there until she married her husband, Nathan, a tropical fish farmer, in 1962. Two years later, the couple had saved enough money to purchase seven acres off Rhodine Road in Riverview and opened Sikes Tropical Fish. They raised three children. In 1979, Sikes lost a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in a fire. They, too, were buried at Hackney. Her respect for cemeteries began at an early age. "When I was a child, my family would go at least once a year to visit the local cemetery near Yeehaw Junction where my great-great grandfather was buried. We'd do some clean-up while we were there," she said. "I remember getting spanked for stepping on a grave when I was little. "I learned early on to honor those who came before me." Now that her husband has been diagnosed with PTSD and dementia, he can no longer help Sikes do the cleanups. So the diminutive dynamo is going to slow down a bit and do only one cleanup every fall. When she's gone, Sikes expects her sons to carry on her work. "If they don't I'll come back to haunt them," she said. "Florence is a very independent, strong-willed woman" said neighbor Rita Hyder, who has known Sikes for 25 years. "When she sets her heart and mind to something ain't nobody going to get in her way. And yet she's the most loving person you'll ever meet." lkindle@tampatrib.com

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