MANATEE -- The 30 people who turned out for the dedication of a bald cypress tree under a hot sun Friday in memory of Wendy Suarez were a testament to the educator's giving spirit.
"I'm blown away at all the support everyone has shown," said Frank Suarez, whose wife, Wendy, 41, died March 15 when a car hit her near Jupiter.
"I didn't know she touched so many lives," he said. "She was so humble, that when people asked what she did for a living she would just say, 'I'm an educator.'"
Wendy Suarez was assistant principal at Jessie P. Miller Elementary School at the time of her death.
Her mother and father, Jo and Keith Laster, who drove down from their home in Goose Creek, S.C., with their other daughter, Casey Mawani, and her two children, Adeem, 13, and Talia, 9, were just as
surprised at the outpouring of support from the community.
"We were flabbergasted," Keith Laster said. "We were always proud of Wendy, but when we found out about this it gave us comfort."
Mawani said she looked up to her big sister and was not surprised at all the people who where there.
"Every life she touched, she made a difference," Mawani said. As an educator, "she always saw something good in every kid."
"I think this is a great way to honor Wendy," said Barry Dunn, principal at Miller, who gathered with Suarez's family and friends at Robinson's Preserve for the tree dedication.
"It's impressive someone took the time to organize and do this," Dunn said.
Parks Robinson and his father, Bill Robinson, owners of Fit2Run, decided to honor their friend, and with so many runners using the preserve, they thought it would be the perfect place for the tree and a plaque.
"She was so involved with the running community," said Parks Robinson.
When Wendy and Frank Suarez met in 2007, both were overweight, so decided to begin an exercise program.
They became regulars at Fit2Run's weekly runs that begin at the retail outlet.
Suarez also was training to run in the Nike All-Women's Marathon held last weekend in Washington, D.C.
Terri McAllister ran it in her place as a tribute to her friend. "It was awesome," McAllister said, "but bittersweet."
Frank Suarez said he ran a virtual half-marathon at the same time. "I did my best record, 1 hour, 57 minutes," he said. "I felt she was with me every step of the way."
Bill Robinson said Wendy Suarez impressed him because of her dedication to fitness. "She went from a half-mile to a marathon," he said. "I'm encouraged to see people take that jump to be more fit."
Cristina Delan, events planner for Fit2Run, said there will be a benefit race at 7:30 a.m. today starting at Manatee High School.
"We already have around 400 people registered," Delan said. "The proceeds will go toward educational scholarships."
During the dedication ceremony, everyone encircled the tree and held hands, while Frank Suarez offered an emotional prayer.
At his side were his two children, Frankie, 18, and Emilie, 15, who grew close to their stepmother.
"This was a great homage to her," said Frankie Suarez, "She touched a lot of people and they responded."