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Harmeling keeps things moving for Gasparilla races

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Published:   |   Updated: March 4, 2013 at 04:56 PM

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TAMPA -

Mama Gasparilla was on the job Friday afternoon at the convention center. It’s race weekend.

Susan Harmeling, executive director of the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association, was in her sleep-free zone, in a sea of details, none too small. This week, Harmeling might lead the world in combined phone calls, texts and e-mails _ and hugs. “I need one,” she’ll say. Everyone gives it up; it’s Susan. She mothers this weekend, nurtures it.

Harmeling endlessly praises her staff, the Gasparilla board of directors and organizing committee, Publix and other sponsors, the city, the volunteers _ and the runners, who might number 29,000 this weekend. They all have stories.

Susan Harmeling, always on the go _ Susan Hummingbird _ keeps it humming along, as she has for 21 years.

Harmeling’s phone rang. She listened, then made her own call.

“Hey, we’re just starting to get a little worried that you’re not setting up yet? 7 p.m.? Are you comfortable with all the locations? OK, good. All right, thanks a lot.”

But there’s one phone call she can’t make this year _ and it was always the most important. Sometimes, without thinking, she’ll push the number, the one she can’t take off her phone, because it always meant one thing.

“I’d talk to Mother,” Harmeling said.

Every morning and afternoon, every day, she’d call Tallahassee, her sister Betty’s house, to talk to their mother, Elizabeth Carlton, sometimes just long enough t say she loved her. Susan phoned her during the races, always, as she drove a car ahead of the runners.

“And there was always that sweet, soft voice, a Southern voice,” Harmeling said. “She treated everybody with kindness and compassion, as if they were part of her own family. It was the one constant in my life, when I called Mother. She was my anchor.”

Elizabeth Carlton died last July. She was 93. The race director fought some tears as she sat in a convention center hall, but smiled when a woman pushing a stroller asked where the elevators were.

“Yes, ma’am, right down the hall, then to the right,” Harmeling said.

Mama Gasparilla thought of her mom. They lost Daddy in 2000.

“When I called her, I knew I was going to hear her voice, and everything was going to go away. As crazy as things can get before this race, she helped me get through it. She always said, ‘Susan, it’s going to be great, but I’ll be so glad when this is all over.’”

Elizabeth was bedridden the last 15 months of her life after a fall. Betty was primary caregiver, with help from Aretha, a caregiver who became like family. Susan would break away from race planning and drive to Tallahassee every other weekend, then it was every weekend as it got worse.

“But Mother would always have this sweetest smile on her face,” Harmeling said. “She would not complain. If she was in a lot of pain, she never told us.”

Elizabeth had worked as a secretary in the psychobiology department at Florida State. She treated students, professors and custodians alike.

“She endeared herself to everyone,” Susan said. “It took about 10 minutes.”

She died at 11 one night. Betty and Susan held her at the end.

The youngest daughter has a knack for getting things done when it come to this weekend. She credits her mother.

“I learned you could lead, but still be compassionate and kind, treat people right.”

Her phone rang.

“Hey,” Harmeling said. “You been following the news? There was an outage as the city’s water plant, and it’s impacting the water. They’re encouraging people to boil their water for the next 48 hours ... We should be OK, because you’ve put extra (bottled) water on the trucks, haven’t you? Sunday, we use city water to mix the Gatorade, but we usually have a fair amount left from Saturday. This is big, I’ve got to think this through. Bye.”

Always the details …

The only thing missing will be those phone calls.

“I’ll still be talking to her,” Susan Harmeling said.

A runner stopped to ask a question. Where do you get the race kits?

“Just up the escalators, ma’am, then the bank of stairs/ Follow the crowd. You have a good weekend.”

A sweet, soft voice, a Southern voice. A mother’s voice.

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