TAMPA — Elaine College was a tiny perfectionist driven to triumph.
She always loved the stage. By 5, she saw her first ballet. She didn't know what the dancers were doing, just that she wanted to do it. By 14, she attended a prestigious New York ballet school.
The arts became her life.
Ms. College broke ground for female executives at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. She worked at the park for 34 years, rising to become its vice president of entertainment.
When she arrived, Busch Gardens was a beer house and a bird garden. By the time she left, it boasted huge draws: World Rhythms on Ice, KaTonga, Summer Nights, Howl-O-Scream.
"We started to endeavor to make it a whole attraction," said Jim Atchison, chief executive officer of Busch Entertainment Corp. "Elaine was one of a handful of people who really got that going. It's just amazing and speaks to the significance of her skills."
She scouted performers and launched new ideas. She demanded greatness, even when directing just-for-fun stage shows starring the staff.
"Elaine would be a stickler for perfection and quality," said Donnie Mills, Busch Gardens' executive vice president and general manager.
She was impeccably dressed and polite but could cut through corporate speak with jokes. A gourmet cook, she hosted intimate dinner parties featuring a cast of regular joes and high-powered arts patrons.
She was unpretentious. One year, she visited Mills on Super Bowl Sunday. She ate two bowls of chili and collapsed on the couch from the heat in front of the party.
For years, she battled lupus. She didn't talk about it at work but good friends could tell when she was feeling poorly.
She retired two weeks ago. Hundreds of friends said goodbye at a party in her favorite space: the Busch Gardens rehearsal hall.
"It ended up to be more than a going-away party for Elaine," Atchison said.
Ms. College died Monday. She was 61.
In 1994, she spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about her career and her struggle with lupus. Here is an excerpt, in her own words.
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I've been to hell and back, which I suppose is an odd sojourn for someone whose whole world was once the ballet, where everything is enchantment and beauty. Ballet is a world that is beautiful but grueling. Hard work is what determines if you make it — that and getting past the pain.
With lupus, the body's immune system attacks itself, and the toll it takes varies from person to person. In my case, the toll has been devastating. What I hope was my low point came about four years ago when the pain was so severe I had to crawl up the stairs on my hands and knees because I couldn't stand up straight. My hands were so stiff I couldn't bend them, and I slept sitting up to keep my lungs from filling with fluid.
I believe God must have a plan for me because I'm still here. I think part of the reason I'm holding my own is because I took control of my life. I have always been independent, but when I became ill, I gave that control over to my doctors and to my husband. My husband left me, and the doctors told me to quit working.
Fortunately, I not only read Dr. Bernie Siegel's Love, Medicine & Miracles, I also had the opportunity to talk with him. He asked me what I wanted, and then told me to do it. What I wanted was to keep working. It was my anchor and the one thing I could still control.
So every morning, I started my day with a walk to get loosened up. I knew if I could get past the first 17 minutes, I'd make it. But the pain and the nausea were so disabling, I remember telling myself I'm either going to improve or I'm going to die, and each one looked pretty good to me.
Part of what keeps me going are the people I work with. I was the first woman in management when I came to Busch Gardens. I started with a legal pad and two lead pencils. I sewed and I soldered and ran a department that consisted of me and a part-time secretary.
As Busch Gardens' first woman manager, I had to earn the respect of men without the benefit of role models. At times I did it graciously, at other times I did it aggressively, but I did it by showing what I can do and then delivering.
I can't say what my future holds except for faith, hope and prayer. They've gotten me through in the past and may have to again. All I know for sure is that I take life one day at a time now and thank God every morning for just letting me get out of bed without pain.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.