Freida B. Smith, for whom the city's Special Population Center is named, is being remembered as the matriarch and champion for people with developmental disabilities, which has helped make Cape Coral the city it is.
And she did it through compassion, volunteerism and music.
Smith, 100, passed away last Wednesday, April 17, in Syracuse, N.Y., where she lived after leaving Cape Coral in 2003 to be close to family.
Gloria Tate, one of the pioneers of Cape Coral in the early 1960s, remembered Smith for her spirit and generosity toward people.
"She had a deep love in Special Populations and it was emulated in everything she did," Tate said. "As long as I can remember, she was involved. She had that spirit. Everything that's happened here happened because we take care of our own. If you wanted it, you created it."
It was that spirit that moved her to volunteer for what was then a summer program for disabled people in 1979, according to Sarah Sansone, Special Populations supervisor.
"The department heard that Freida was a prior special education teacher and asked her to get involved," Sansone said. "They met at the Yacht Club and they had a piano and she would play it for the small group of adults."
By 1990, when Sansone began working there, the program was at the Douglas Realty building on Coronado Parkway, and it moved from place to place until it found a home first at the Lake Kennedy Senior Center in 1992, then in its permanent home two years later, which was important for the expansion of the program to include job training.
Sansone said there was a piano at the realty office, which moved from place to place with her. And she learned what special gift Smith had for teaching and music.
"I was amazed how she didn't just sing songs, but she educated through her music," Sansone said. "She travelled the world and would pick up mementos. She would bring them in and sing a song about it and where it came from and the culture."
Smith would also play piano for the holidays and sing about the May pole and a dance, Sansone said, and watched the program grow from the three to five at the beginning to the 18 to 20 there when Sansone arrived.
Any money she made for her volunteer piano playing went to Special Populations, Sansone said, calling her a champion of their cause to expand.
Sansone said when Smith started teaching, they put their classroom in the basement and not integrated with other students as they are now.
As a person, Tate remembered Smith as a grandmother figure.
"She was like your best grandmother ever. If you could pick or choose a grandmother who would love you unconditionally, it was her," Tate said. "Always smiling and happy. A very loving woman."
Weezer Murphy, a Rotary member and a 23-year resident of Cape Coral, remembered her as the "piano player" at Rotary meetings on top of everything else.
"She threw herself completely into Special Pops. She was the sweetest little lady," Murphy said. "She was dedicated to its participants and to the city employees who administered it."
Murphy also remembered Smith for knowing when it was time to go and be with her family, as she was in declining health.
"She was a loss to our community, but she was slowing down, like we're all going to do," Murphy said.
Ultimately, the building that's named for her on Santa Barbara Boulevard will be her lasting legacy.
"Special Pops was the goal in her life to accomplish what she did and because of her efforts, they named a building after her," said city historian Paul Sanborn.
"I'm grateful she had that passion that she inspired us all to have to make the world a better place with Special Pops," Tate said. "I've sold a home to somebody specifically for that purpose. That says volumes for the community. It's not always about the dollars and cents."
"To me, she was an extraordinary teacher. Music is a universal language. They don't need to be able to read or see, but the tune itself. She took that tool and was able to teach them about other people," Sansone said. "She was a peer. I loved her as a person, a friend and her ability."
A memorial service for Smith is being planned for a later date. For more information, contact Sansone at 574-0574.