TAMPA — Gwendolyn Stephenson, the longest-serving president of Hillsborough Community College, died Thursday under hospice care. She was 69.
Dr. Stephenson suffered from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, diagnosed in October 2011, her family said.
Between taking the reins in 1997 and her retirement in 2010, Dr. Stephenson restored the reputation of a financially beleaguered college widely said to be suffering poor morale.
Earlier in the 1990s, she had achieved similar results at a Midwestern college with a student population nearly as large as HCC's. That work as chancellor of the St. Louis Community College system led to a national reputation as a fixer, a miracle worker — and made her a prime candidate to take over at HCC in 1997.
"We were asked about it at a board meeting," recalled Herman "Steve" Stephenson, a retired mathematics professor and Dr. Stephenson's husband. "They said, 'We've heard about a college in Hillsborough that's having a hell of a time, and everybody knows what you did in St. Louis. You could go down there and clean that place up.'"
Dr. Stephenson thanked her colleagues but declined. HCC's budget was running on fumes. Its president had survived a damning consultant's report and briefly was voted out of office by the board.
"She said, 'Hell, no. That place is a hell hole,' " said Steve Stephenson, 75.
But Dr. Stephenson couldn't resist a challenge. When recruited, she said yes.
"I think we needed her leadership at the time we received it," said Ashley Carl, HCC's spokeswoman. "We needed someone who had that kind of gracefulness about her, that softness that made people feel comfortable."
A St. Louis native, Gwendolyn Woods was born in 1943 to parents who both valued education for different reasons. Her father had dropped out of grade school and her mother savored her only year of college.
She felt as though she was not as pretty as her sisters. There were other obstacles, too.
One teacher seated students by skin complexion: with darker faces to the back.
At home she pretended to be a teacher, holding "class" for her sister Eleanor. She graduated near the top of her class, then earned a bachelor's degree at Harris Teachers College.
But teaching frustrated her. She pecked away at graduate school, earning a doctorate from Saint Louis University in 1975, three years after marrying Steve Stephenson. She directed an enrichment program for minority students at Washington University at St. Louis, then took over as dean of student services at a St. Louis Community College campus.
"Her development was rapid," her husband said. "She was a problem solver. As a mathematician, I admired that."
Dr. Stephenson rose to vice chancellor of academic affairs, then chancellor for the three-campus, 35,000-student system in 1992.
Within a few years of taking over at HCC, the school climbed out of its budget hole.
During 13 years at the helm, the college added a fifth HCC campus, SouthShore in Ruskin; created more than 170 new academic programs; and boosted endowments by 241 percent.
"Dr. Stephenson brought extraordinary leadership and thoughtful guidance to HCC, and propelled the college into becoming one of the most admired and respected community colleges in the country," said Ken Atwater, who succeeded Dr. Stephenson as HCC's president.
While being treated at Moffitt Cancer Center, Dr. Stephenson took comfort in the most personal kind of accolade: many of the health care workers taking care of her had gotten their degrees under her leadership.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.