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Community activist broke barriers throughout her life

TAMPA — Educator, entrepreneur and civic leader Betty Wiggins believed in her goals, then combined a teacher's persuasion with a steely grit to achieve most of them.

Mrs. Wiggins died Nov. 9 of breast cancer. She was 78. She set precedents throughout her life, from high school valedictorian to a seat on the City Council.

Along the way, she led several civic organizations and racked up numerous awards, including the Urban League's Volunteer of the Year, and saw multiple scholarships created in her name.

She was born in Monticello, the daughter of sharecroppers who wanted better lives for their children.

"All of her siblings graduated from high school. Then all went to college," said Deborah Randall, Mrs. Wiggins' daughter. "That was unheard of, especially in Monticello."

She graduated from Florida A&M University, then earned a master's in education from the University of South Florida.

Mrs. Wiggins taught English at Middleton High School for about a decade. Mrs. Wiggins then answered a recruiter's call to join General Electric in Largo, where she became the plant's first black woman in management.

"She was a meticulously organized person," said Randall, 49. "She wanted things to be done in a professional manner. You just did not hee-haw around."

She jumped into neighborhood affairs wherever she lived, serving as president of the Progress Village Civic Council and executive director of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association.

In 1984 she opened a printing and public relations company, B.P. Brown Enterprises. Her success in that business marked another first for a local African-American woman.

Her record of volunteerism impressed the City Council, who selected her in 1998 to complete another member's term.

She continued to work for affordable housing, despite the bureaucratic delays and disappointments such work can bring.

"You don't often get community activists that have a good business head on their shoulders," said former Hillsborough County commissioner and housing developer Ed Turanchik. "Betty combined her passions with common sense and sound business judgment."

Her first marriage, to fellow teacher Alfonso Brown, ended after 25 years. Otis Wiggins, her husband of more than 20 years, died in 2009.

Mrs. Wiggins poured her energy into her home and church life, before and after two earlier bouts with breast cancer.

A stay at Sun City Center proved short-lived when her cancer returned.

"She taught me the courage to persevere, no matter what circumstances were," her daughter said.

Friends initiated the Betty P. Brown Wiggins Scholarship Endowment. Also in her honor, Mayor Bob Buckhorn declared Aug. 19, "Betty P. Wiggins Day," calling her "one of those individuals whose commitment and dedication have made a lasting impression on our community."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2248.

.BIOGRAPHY

Betty Proctor Brown Wiggins

Born: Dec. 12, 1932

Died: Nov. 9, 2011

Survivors: daughter Deborah Randall; son Donald Brown; brothers Rev. Dr. James Proctor, Ernest and William Proctor Sr.; four grandchildren; one great-grandson.

Community activist broke barriers throughout her life 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 9:25pm]
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