There was a surprise announcement during Florida State University's College of Nursing convocation in Tallahassee on April 27. Two women in the audience were unexpectedly called to the stage.
Erin Gray and Kacey Gumina knew each other, but not very well. They were linked by a common interest — nursing — and by similar roots. Erin is from Palm Harbor, Kacey is from Land O'Lakes.
They were also linked by the hopes and dreams of a girl who died before she could become a nurse.
Two bouquets awaited them on the stage. Pink roses and orchids. That was Pamela Thompson's favorite color.
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Leah Einboden says it was the most despondent she has ever seen her husband, Paul. It was November 2003, and Paul had just gotten the news that his 19-year-old niece, Pamela Thompson, had been run over by a stranger who had stolen her car.
Paul had helped raise his niece. In 1988, then 4-year-old Pamela left Riverside, Calif., for Largo, where Paul lived at the time with his first wife. Her mother had been unable to care for her, so Paul and his wife took on the job.
Pamela was a tomboy. She played basketball and she was a gymnast. She loved to fish, sitting in the shallow water of McKay Creek, which ran through Paul's back yard. She used a bucket, and would wait patiently for a fish to swim in. She always put the fish back.
Every fall Paul, a Florida State graduate, took Pamela with him to Tallahassee for football games. The highlight of every trip for Pamela was helping babysit the other small children while the adults went to the game. She loved children. She wanted to be a pediatric nurse.
When she was 13, Pamela went back to California to live with her mother. Six years later, Nov. 7, 2003, she was run over by her own car. A man who had stolen it hit her as he sped out of her apartment complex. Pamela had been looking for her car and was on the phone with her mother, who heard her scream before the phone went dead.
Paul flew to California. His niece lingered in a coma for three days, then died. The man who hit her was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and received a life sentence, Paul said.
In St. Petersburg, Paul's then-girlfriend, Leah, tried to think of something they could do to memorialize Pamela. Leah knew Pamela had wanted to be a nurse. Leah, also a Florida State graduate, looked into what it would take to start a nursing scholarship.
"I didn't want her life to be a blip, a blurb on the evening news and then nothing," said Leah, 40, who later married Paul.
Paul, 52, is a marketing manager for Verizon. Leah works in sales and marketing for an assisted living facility. The minimum amount needed to start an endowed scholarship at Florida State is $25,000.
For six years, Paul and Leah raised money. They sent out mass emails to friends, asking for donations. The Verizon Foundation matched many of the donations, ultimately contributing about half, according to Paul.
"We're not independently wealthy, and neither are any of our friends," Leah said last week. "It took a village."
In December 2009, an anonymous donor gave $2,500, putting the fund over the $25,000 limit. It was invested along with the rest of the $500 million in Florida State's endowment; its earnings are used for scholarships.
"We want to provide support for someone else to reach their goal," Paul said last week as he sat on the couch of his St. Petersburg home with Leah. A Florida State pillow rested between them. A framed picture of Pamela sat on the coffee table.
In the fall of 2010, the endowment gave out the first Pamela Thompson Scholarship, $500 to Erin Gray. In 2011, $500 went to Kacey Gumina. Both graduated last weekend.
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Erin and Kacey stood next to each other on the stage at the convocation ceremony and smiled for pictures. They hadn't known Paul and Leah were sending the beautiful pink flowers for the ceremony.
Both girls received other scholarship money to help pay for their nursing education. The $500 Thompson scholarship was needed, though. Erin put the money toward the $1,000 per semester she spent on textbooks. Kacey used her money to help pay her tuition. This scholarship meant more than other financial aid, Kacey said, because of the emotional significance.
"It made it a lot more personal," said Kacey, 23, who is looking for a job in pediatric nursing. She hopes to work at Tampa General Hospital some day.
Erin, 22, has already landed her first job. She will work in the cardiac intensive care unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The roses and orchids sat on her coffee table as she talked about how this scholarship was different from others.
"I know how hard they worked," Erin said of Paul and Leah. "It really means a lot that they wanted to help somebody reach Pamela's dream."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.