Mary Giella's excellence as a high school math and English teacher earned her a promotion in 1972 to assistant superintendent for Pasco County schools. Within weeks, she attended a conference with others in the same position from Florida's 67 counties.
She was one of only three women.
This, of course, reflected the reality of the nation's workforce, not just public schools. The leveling of the playing field for women, the opportunities for leadership positions and better salaries are the direct result of pioneers like Giella.
She kept that job until she retired in 1997 and mentored new school superintendents around the state. Meanwhile, she made it a priority to stay connected with other women who had cracked that glass ceiling.
Thus began the Steel Magnolias.
Myndy Stanfill had just retired as Pasco's assistant superintendent for human resources. Greta Adams wound up a long career as the district's director of communications and community partnerships. And Kitty Piersall retired as director of research and evaluation. They had all worked their way through the ranks, starting in classrooms. They had much in common, including their love for each other.
"We wanted to stay connected,'' Giella said, "so we started having lunch at least once a month. It helped ease the transition from being so busy to having time to relax a bit. Myndy said, 'We need a name.' ''
Steel Magnolias, a movie about strong Southern women, was popular at the time. "They were feisty,'' Piersall said. "We liked that idea. We were feisty, too.''
They welcomed other women into the club each year with only one requirement: they had to be a retired school administrator. Friendships deepened. They celebrated birthdays and other milestones. They debated politics and second-guessed educational policies. But mainly they just had fun.
And in grief, they comforted each other. Adams, who began teaching in Dade City in 1964, died in 2000 after a long battle with cancer. Four years later, Stanfill, who had taught every level of school from kindergarten to universities, died after a brief illness.
The Steel Magnolias honored them and contributed to educational grants established in their names.
Last week, Giella invited me to the group's monthly lunch at A Matter of Taste Cafe in Dade City. The membership has grown to 45, although summer travel and other obligations limited this particular gathering to 15. Even so, as I watched them having a good time, it occurred to me that seldom will you see so many Ph.D.s under one roof in Pasco County. Most are active in the community. Some, like Oma Pantridge, retired supervisor of exceptional education, remain professionally employed. She is an adjunct professor training future teachers at the University of South Florida.
Cathy Rapp, retired supervisor of student services, is amused by her membership in the club. "My friends laughed when I told them I was going to be a Steel Magnolia,'' she said. "I'm a Northerner. But I'm working on being a Southern belle.''
Imagine the Steel Magnolias in full force, as they were shortly before the last election when Kurt Browning visited as a candidate for school superintendent. "We did fill his ears,'' laughed Piersall, who once led San Antonio Elementary and Weightman Middle.
Giella, at 75 still on top of political issues, emails information to members. They pay attention and vote, but they don't want to alter the goal of the originators. "We worked hard,'' she said, "and we're still involved. But the Steel Magnolias have no agenda, no official anything.''
She credits Tom Weightman for the growth of the Steel Magnolias. He served 22 years as superintendent before retiring in 1996 and occasionally visits with the group.
"He promoted women,'' Giella said. "That changed everything.''