The thousands of students who signed up for Rita Osborn’s music and humanities classes at St. Petersburg Junior College knew what they had to do to pass.
They could study and memorize material for tests, but they wouldn’t earn more than a C if they didn’t attend concerts and plays, which she often starred in. The same went for her students at Gibbs High in the 1960s.
Her method worked. Many of her students went on to become professional musicians, professors and colleagues. That includes her daughter, Joan Epstein, who is in her 37th year teaching music at Eckerd College.
Rita Osborn’s legacy was her insistence that students got hands-on experience with the arts and weren’t "just checking off boxes with a curriculum requirement," her daughter said. "For many of these people, it was the first way they experienced the arts live."
Mrs. Osborn kept in touch with her students and helped them find connections in the professional world. She bonded with others through causes she believed in and made friends on strolls through North Shore Park into her later years.
She died Nov. 12 from a severe case of osteoporosis. She was 91.
Rita Pangborn Osborn was born into talent in Cazenovia, N.Y., outside of Syracuse. Her father, who had a part-time career as a drummer and played in a dance band, quickly recognized that his little girl could follow a beat — and had perfect pitch. He arranged music for her and sat her in front of a piano, drumming along behind her.
She studied education at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, N.Y., and went on to get her master’s degree at Smith College in Massachusetts. There, she met Donald Osborn in the orchestra.
He played violin, she was an accompanist in the percussion section. They married in 1950.
The Osborns came to St. Petersburg in 1952 through Don’s business in mobile home courts. They raised five daughters and in 1966 Rita began teaching at St. Petersburg Junior College, which later became St. Petersburg College.
And when Gibbs High’s choir needed a piano accompanist, Mrs. Osborn brought her daughters and sat them beside her on the bench.
While she may have had a nose for all things musical, she didn’t for hair spray, perfume or the bouquets that often came her way after performances. It was her sensitivity to smell that convinced her that her classroom in the fine arts building at SPJC had poor air circulation and led to hazardous health conditions.
According to a 1985 report in the St. Petersburg Times, Mrs. Osborn and several of her students suffered from sore throats, headaches, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and sinus trouble — symptoms detrimental to music majors. She confronted college administrators, who maintained that the mold and mildew levels were "nothing out of the ordinary." Mrs. Osborn said she spent "well over $35,000" on medical bills.
When she was honored as a professor emeritus in 2011, SPC wrote that she "led the efforts to create healthier environments in classrooms and practice rooms, which resulted in large-scale reconstruction in recent years."
Said David Manson, a music professor at the school: "I think she was the one dogged faculty member who just would not back down on this issue."
Mrs. Osborn went on to self-publish a book about the ordeal called Toxic Teacher and served as president of the local chapter of the Human Ecology Action League, or HEAL, a national organization for those whose health has been affected by environmental exposures and "sick" buildings.
After she retired from the college in 1991, she worked mostly without pay at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, the magnet program that began at Gibbs High in 1984. Mrs. Osborn would scoot in with her walker and a cushion for the bench seat when she accompanied students at recitals.
"When the students would be freaking out, she was always just lovely and encouraging and calm," said Dawne Eubanks, a voice instructor at PCCA and Eckerd College.
Mrs. Osborn would always ask about what happened to those students. She kept in touch with notes sent via regular mail.
Robert Winslow, who teaches music at Hillsborough Community College, was Mrs. Osborn’s student in the 1970s. Winslow was a lounge musician on the beach and he said Mrs. Osborn referred him to a piano teacher at the University of South Florida to get him on track for academia.
"I just so appreciated what she did for me when I was young," he said. "And to thank me for being her student in later years was just icing on the cake."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.