TAMPA — Rose Diaz walked off the grounds of Sacred Heart Academy at 17, tossing off an unprintable phrase to the nun who watched her leave.
Just like that, she was done with school for good.
Ms. Diaz would return to school, graduating as salutatorian from an adult education program. She would go on to serve for more than 40 years in Hillsborough County schools, during which time she left a sizable imprint on adult education and girls athletics. An award named after her, given each year to an outstanding female volleyball player, reflects part of that legacy.
Ms. Diaz, who worked to improve the chances of Latino students and adult learners, died July 21 of Alzheimer's disease, her family said. She was 78.
"Adult education saved me," she told La Gaceta in 2005. "Without it, I don't even want to think about where I would be today."
As an assistant principal running adult programs at Jefferson, East Bay and Tampa Bay Technical high schools, Ms. Diaz recruited translators so that technical students who spoke mostly Spanish could understand their teachers, many of whom were local business owners or tradesmen. She also established child care programs for students and added programs such as nursing assistant's training to the curriculum.
Her commitment impressed Sylvia Albritton, a former Tampa Bay Tech principal who hired Ms. Diaz in 1998.
"She mentioned she had a vision for helping Spanish-speaking new members of the community come in and learn English and learn vocational skills," said Albritton, 65, who retired as the county's director of career and technical education. "I ended up thinking it was a great idea, but I had no idea how far she would go with it."
Ms. Diaz was born Rose Corral in 1936 in Havana. By age 5, her parents had divorced. Her mother brought her to Tampa in 1947, when Ms. Diaz was in sixth grade and spoke no English.
The schools quickly bumped her down to the third grade. She reacted by turning into a class clown.
Her mother's financial problems meant she had to return to Cuba multiple times. Ms. Diaz attended part of sixth grade, all of the seventh and skipped the eighth. In 1954, her junior year, she dropped out.
"To put it simply," Ms. Diaz said later, "I had a problem with a nun at Sacred Heart Academy. She didn't like me and I didn't like her. So I finally told her where to stick it."
Ms. Diaz worked as a lab tech, then enrolled in Hillsborough County Adult High School later that year. By then she was married to Waldo Diaz. She wanted to "have a million children and live happily ever after."
One of her teachers insisted she go to college and said he would pay her registration fees. Ms. Diaz earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Tampa while teaching at the Academy of Holy Names.
Over the years she taught Spanish and physical education at West Tampa Junior High, Webb Middle School and Hillsborough High. In 1976 the district classified her as a vocational and career specialist for adults. She joined Jefferson High in 1983 as an assistant principal of the school's adult program.
In the early 1980s, she helped establish a girls volleyball program by enlisting coaches and training officials.
Ms. Diaz retired in 2003 but continued to work for an outreach program to Latino students through the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College.
"Either I've enjoyed planting my roots in different areas or I'm just easily bored," she said.
Honors flowed her way. Ms. Diaz won the state's Adult and Community Education Award and was later named the Hillsborough Career Technical and Adult Association Educator of the Year and the Tampa Hispanic Educator of the Year.
Meanwhile, the Rose Diaz Award, given by the Hillsborough County Volleyball Officials Association, is often said to go to the county's best female volleyball player. While that's true enough, the criteria run deeper, said Clyde Trathowen, 70, a former East Bay High principal and volleyball official.
"(Award winners) make people do things that sometimes they don't think they can do," Trathowen said. "They are the motivator of the team."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.