ST. PETERSBURG — Years ago, Esther Oliver went roller skating with her son's family. She survived several trips around the rink, then treated her grandchildren to video games.
Dr. Oliver, who juggled motherhood and graduate studies without compromising either, liked being in the center of the action. She earned her doctorate in her early 40s and got her first teaching job soon after, at the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg Junior College (now St. Petersburg College). A decade later she was running the college's Allstate Center in St. Petersburg, which launched a seminal counterterrorism training institute for "first responders" to emergencies, such as police and firefighters.
Dr. Oliver, who served the last 10 years of a late-blooming career as the head of the Allstate campus, died Friday, of acute pneumonia. She was 70.
"She was dogged in getting the task completed," said recently retired St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler, who credited Dr. Oliver with helping to secure "tens of millions of dollars" in federal grants for programs to combat terrorism and drug abuse. "Like with a bone — if you gave it to her, she'd get it done."
Dr. Oliver was one of the nation's first women to lead a counterterrorism school, Kuttler said. Material at the National Terrorism Preparedness Institute covered subjects the English literature professor did not know well at first, such as how to protect yourself in the event of a biochemical attack. She hired experts, sought funding and supervised the creation of national television broadcasts that reached 5.5 million people worldwide, Kuttler said.
Among those trained were 250 New York City first responders in 2000, 14 of whom died the next year in the World Trade Center attacks.
Esther Stump grew up in Coatesville, Pa., an auto mechanic's daughter. She met her future husband, theologian Edward Oliver, while attending the first of two now-defunct bible colleges. She was good with names and called everyone by their first names. Her father's expressions had a way of creeping into her speech, such as, "It's raining forks and hammer handles."
She shuttled her two sons to music lessons and sports activities while getting a doctorate at the University of South Florida. She got her first full-time job at SPJC in 1983. The school made her dean of academic services for all campuses in 1988, then provost of the Allstate campus in 1994.
"She had two sides to her personality," said her son, Scott Oliver, 47. "She was the mom when she was with us, but then she was hard and no-nonsense in her professional life."
Dr. Oliver suffered a cold last weekend and skipped church. On Wednesday she walked Countryside Mall, her daily exercise, but complained she could not breathe well. A doctor Thursday morning referred her to Morton Plant Hospital. She died at 11 a.m. Friday.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.