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Elfi Parrish dies at 55; called unique, strong and spirited

PLANT CITY — Elfi Parrish got her unusual first name almost by accident. Her mother, a young German woman who had just moved to this country with her new American husband, had a completely different name in mind.

"My mother actually wanted to name her Michelle, but she didn't know how to spell it," said Angela Bethell, Elfi Parrish's sister.

No one in the family knows where the name Elfi came from — it's virtually unheard of even in Germany — but Ms. Parrish ended up growing into the name.

"She was one of a kind, so the name suited her," said good friend Joni Deitch.

Ms. Parrish passed away Dec. 19. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer in March. She was 55.

She was born in Fort Benning, Ga., to a 15-year-old mother who spoke almost no English. Her father, who had met his bride while he was stationed in Germany, didn't speak much German.

"They made it work," her sister said. "Their marriage lasted a long time."

But it finally ended, and Ms. Parrish grew up with both a father and stepfather in her life.

She herself married young, and her only child, Danny Johan Jr., was born when she was in her early 20s. Her marriage to her son's father was fairly brief, and turned out to be the first of four marriages.

But from the day her son was born, he was the focus of her life.

"She was an amazing mother, and she was an amazing grandmother," Deitch said.

She moved to Plant City on the early 1980s to be closer to her sister and mother, who had moved here separately.

Ms. Parrish had a career as a legal secretary, but she also helped at her mother's shop in Carrollwood. Ms. Parrish would often wake up at 4:30 in the morning, drive from Plant City to Tampa to pick up doughnuts, deliver them to the shop, go home to Plant City, shower and dress, drop her young son at day care, and then start her eight-hour workday in a law office.

She didn't mind the hard work because it meant she could make a good life for her son. But she enjoyed her off-hours, too.

"We were the dancing queens of the Dallas Bull," Deitch said. "We both had a love of country music, and we would go out there every single weekend. We had a lot of friends there, and we made a lot of new friends there."

Ms. Parrish's last husband was a now-retired Hillsborough County deputy sheriff named Don Hunt. Though they divorced, they got back together and remained a couple until her death.

She had been a bit afraid of horses when she was a kid, but during her relationship with Hunt she grew to love them. Both she and Hunt were members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Mounted Posse, a volunteer group that helps with crowd control and performed ceremonial functions. Ms. Parrish hadn't started riding until later in her life, but ended up winning trophies in equestrian competitions.

It was typical of Ms. Parrish, Deitch said, to face new opportunities and new challenges with enthusiasm. Any time she took up a new hobby — whether it was country dancing or horse riding — she devoted herself fully to it. She approached being a single mother and being a cancer patient with the same single-minded determination.

"She was just such a strong person," Deitch said. "When she got cancer she fought it with everything she had."

Ms. Parrish seemed to be improving after her first round of cancer treatment, but her condition deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and she spent her last days under hospice care.

Just days before Ms. Parrish died, Deitch had her last conversation with her best friend.

"She looked at me and said, 'Have I given you purpose?' " Deitch said. "I wasn't sure what she meant but I said, 'Of course you've given me purpose. You've given me 25 years of wonderful friendship.' "

Besides Hunt, her sister and her son, Ms. Parrish is survived by a brother, Henry Harris, and a granddaughter.

Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Elfi Parrish dies at 55; called unique, strong and spirited 01/03/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 3:30am]
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