HYDE PARK — The seeds for Shirley Kirton's two careers were planted in childhood.
Mrs. Kirton's mother was a teacher, so it was natural that she chose a career in education. She taught at Plant High School, her alma mater, and then served as the dean of Adams Junior High School for 26 years before she retired.
She grew up in a South Tampa home full of heirlooms that gave Mrs. Kirton tangible reminders of her family's history. After her mother passed away, her father remarried, and he left his entire estate to his second wife. Mrs. Kirton never saw those heirlooms again. She was an only child, so when her parents were dead and the heirlooms were gone she felt as though she had been set adrift.
That's probably why she had such a passion for antiques, said her daughter Karen Swiatek. Mrs. Kirton and her husband turned that passion into a business. They owned Kirton's Antiques and Uniques on the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Habana Avenue.
Mrs. Kirton died April 28 after a brief illness. She was 83.
She lived virtually her entire life in South Tampa. She only lived elsewhere while she was studying for her bachelor's degree at Florida State University and for her master's at Columbia University.
After she graduated from FSU, she began her teaching career in Brandon but stayed there only one year. She came to Plant High School in the early 1950s, before leaving for Columbia. She returned to Plant and started a reading program there. It became a model for reading programs that she started in schools all over Hillsborough County.
Her husband, Terry, was also an educator. They met at a teacher's meeting.
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Education was more than a career. Mrs. Kirton loved to teach, and she cared about language. She didn't stop teaching when she left the classroom.
"She was a teacher, even in her daily life," said Swiatek, her only child. "She was an English teacher, and if you ever made a mistake in grammar, she would tell you. But she doted on me. I had the best of everything. And she had a smile that would just light you up."
She switched from teaching at Plant to being the dean of girls at Adams in 1959. She stayed in that position — the equivalent of the assistant principal today — until she retired in 1985.
She and her husband opened Kirton's Antiques and Uniques in 1973 while both were actively teaching. Employees managed the daily business of the store.
"Because they were teachers, they had three months off every year, and we'd spend the summers driving around in the New England states going to antique sales," Swiatek said. "That became the stock for the store."
Terry Kirton died in 1982. Mrs. Kirton was only 52 but never seemed interested in remarrying.
"He was the love of her life," their daughter said. "She never married or even dated again. She had married the man she loved, and that was it."
When she retired from teaching, she considered giving up the business. Instead, she changed the focus of her shop to collectibles. It proved to be easier and more profitable than the antiques business.
"In the days before Home Shopping Network, Mom had a really lucrative business because she did a lot of mail-order," her daughter said. "Even though we had that big storefront, she was shipping all over the country."
Kirton's Antiques and Uniques finally closed in 1996.
"She was the most wonderful woman," her daughter said. "For some reason you don't appreciate that until she's gone. That's what I'm struggling with right now. I'll never get to see that smile of hers."
Besides her daughter, Mrs. Kirton is survived by her stepsons, Keith and Steve, three grandchildren, one great-grandson, eight stepgrandchildren and 10 step great-grandchildren.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]