Prominent Beaumont fashion maven, arts supporter and all-around bon vivant Paula "Torchy" Salter died Sunday after a long battle with cancer. She was 54.
Some of Salter's untold number of friends said they would miss the woman whose heart was as big as her love of life was irrepressible.
Salter, originally from Wisconsin, came to Beaumont about 30 years ago when she was transferred here by the old Fair Store, for whom she worked as a buyer, according to her longtime friend Keith Carter, a photographer and Lamar University professor.
Salter would later be instrumental in establishing The Studio boutique before opening her own West End salon, Torchy's, in 1987 in a small house at Calder Avenue and 10th Street.
It was one of the first boutique stores in Beaumont. By 2008, there were more than a dozen such stores, which Salter told The Beaumont Enterprise was a good thing.
"I've always welcomed" competition, she said. "It keeps people shopping in Beaumont as opposed to going to Houston."
The store moved to St. Charles Plaza on Phelan before Salter closed it in 2008, after 22 years of business.
"Torchy was just kind of a cosmic spirit," Carter said. "She lived her life pretty much on her own terms. She found a way to keep her creative spirit intact in what is in many ways a pretty conservative community. She was one of a kind."
Carter said he and his wife got to know Salter because she moved to a house close to theirs, and they became acquainted through a group of artistic friends who hung out at Carlo's Mexican Restaurant on Calder Avenue.
He said Salter had a knack for reinventing herself, finding a new "incarnation" of Torchy in her personal and professional lives.
"Every few years, she was a new person," he said.
"Torchy's was just a staple for the community," Paula Bothe, a longtime customer, told The Enterprise in 2008. "One of the wonderful things about Torchy is if she doesn't have something for you, she will tell you."
Salter closed the store to pursue a different passion - biofeedback - a healing method she utilized while going through chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment.
Biofeedback is described as a means of using the mind to control a bodily function, such as skin temperature or heart rate, that the body normally regulates automatically.
"I've found my passion is much more about making people feel good," Salter told The Enterprise. "I'm so excited. It's the end of one era and the beginning of another, and I'm very excited about it. I've had a marvelous run and a fabulous time."
Salter was also a prominent supporter of the Beaumont arts scene. She served as a trustee on the board of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas and was a founding member of The Art Studio Inc., an alternative art cooperative founded by Greg Busceme in 1983.
In recent years, Salter returned to her role as principal organizer of the Beaux Arts Ball, the annual soiree benefitting the studio.
"She was a wonderful, outspoken, amazing, energetic woman," Busceme said Sunday. "She could talk anybody into anything. That's what she was good at."
Busceme's brother, local restaurateur Carlo Busceme III, first met Salter about the time she arrived in Beaumont. They became close in recent years, about the time Hurricane Rita hit the area in 2005.
"She was a dear, dear friend. She was able to run circles around me," he said.
Carlo Busceme said their "whirlwind friendship" coincided with several tumultuous events in Salter's life.
Within the span of a few years, she lost her parents, two of her three Labrador retrievers in a March 2008 fire at her home and suffered two bouts of cancer, the second of which took her life.
Phil Young, bass player for the local rock band Buffalo Blonde, was hit hard by the news.
"Everybody knew her, everybody," Young said. "If she didn't know you, she'd make sure she met you."
Young said he'd known Salter through her participation in various benefits the band played around town.
"If there was a benefit, she'd make sure she was involved with it," he said. "She lived life that way it's supposed to be lived, on her own terms, and she never harmed a single soul ever."
Salter was presented the Triangle AIDS Network 2009 Red Ribbon Hero Award in November "for her untiring efforts on behalf of persons living with HIV/AIDS."
Salter was honored as a TAN advocate "whose zest for life and flair for helping others has lent a spirit of love to Paint the Town Red," according to the award.
Salter was a leading supporter of Paint the Town Red and TAN since the gala's inception in 1992.
Published in The Beaumont Enterprise on Mar. 15, 2010