TAMPA — Margaret Gandy, who helped nearly a generation of Plant High School students get into and pay for college, died Thursday. She was 77.
When Mrs. Gandy arrived at Plant High in 1985, about 78 percent of the school's graduating seniors continued their education. Together, they received $340,000 in scholarships.
By the time she retired in 2003, she had worked with about 6,000 students. An estimated 95 to 97 percent continued their education. And, in her last year, they received $10 million in scholarships.
"She was the best," said J. Robert Spatig, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of South Florida. "There was nobody in public secondary education who knew more or had a bigger heart than Margaret Gandy."
Hillsborough County School Board member Candy Olson said some students ended up at universities they had dared not dream of because of Mrs. Gandy's knack for matching their strengths to a school's ambitions.
"Every child who wanted to go to college got her attention and the full benefit of everything she knew and could think of for that particular child," said Olson, whose two daughters received help from Mrs. Gandy before heading off to the University of Delaware and Harvard.
Born in Orlando, Mrs. Gandy graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor's degree in recreation education and from Duke University's Divinity School with a master's degree in religious education.
Before coming to Plant, she raised two children and did a variety of things where she developed strategies aimed at bettering students and young people, said her husband of more than 50 years, William.
As a recreation intern at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle, she organized a barn dance for service members. In Volusia County, she was a Girl Scout leader.
At Plant High, her job — guidance resource specialist — didn't exist before she arrived, first as a volunteer and starting in 1986 as a staff member.
Over the years, however, she created a model for coaching students through the application process. It is now used in high schools throughout Hillsborough, though those who do the job are known as college and career counselors.
"I always say I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up until I did this," Mrs. Gandy told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003. "It's fun, it's hard work, time-consuming, but the results, the rewards, are daily."
In that interview, Mrs. Gandy recalled only two students in her 18 years who did not get into one of their top three colleges.
Her office, known as "Gandyland," featured rows of mugs from colleges and universities from throughout the country. It also had more than a dozen computers and six file cabinets filled with information on universities, two-year colleges, trade schools, scholarships, financial aid, even unique majors.
Mrs. Gandy routinely conducted seminars for teachers on how to write the perfect letter of recommendation. Don't say that you've been asked to write the letter, she would advise. And don't just say a student is reliable. That bores university admissions officers. Tell them something the student did that demonstrates reliability.
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Former colleagues praised Mrs. Gandy's wide-ranging knowledge, creativity and resourcefulness.
"If there was an answer some place to be found, she would seek it out and find it and make it her own," said Annamae Johnson, a retired Plant teacher, department head, dean and assistant principal.
Four years before she retired, Mrs. Gandy started a rowing club at Plant, not because she knew anything about the sport (she didn't), but because some universities offered rowing scholarships, especially to women. When she retired, the club included 130 kids and had seen its first rower awarded a scholarship that covered half her tuition.
In 2002, the Tampa Rotary Club gave her its outstanding educator award for her work with students, which continued after she retired. After leaving Plant, Mrs. Gandy formed College Guide Post, a private service that helped about 100 students a year apply to college and seek financial aid.
In recent years, friends had known that Mrs. Gandy had gone through a bout with breast cancer, and some thought she had beat it. In an e-mail to friends last week, they learned otherwise. Mrs. Gandy said she had been through extensive tests over the last three months.
"The definitive diagnosis still isn't entirely settled," she said. "However, we do know that it's cancer and in the liver. I'm undergoing treatment right now so I particularly covet your prayers."
She died four days later.
In interviews Sunday, former colleagues said no one focused on students like Margaret Gandy, and she would be missed.
"People trusted Margaret because it didn't matter who the child was, she was going to make sure that they were placed appropriately at the college they needed or wanted to go to," former Plant High principal Eric Bergholm said. "She was just a great advocate for kids."