ST. PETERSBURG — Toni Fudge was a single mother in 1942, slogging through workdays managing a Baltimore shoe store.
The 22-year-old from rural North Carolina saw an ad for dance instructors. Soon she was interviewing for a position at Arthur Murray Dance Studios, the inspiration of a Hungarian immigrant whose franchises were expanding across the country.
Mrs. Fudge asked the interviewer whether male instructors earned more than the 80-cents-an-hour wage he was offering her.
Men and women were paid equally, she was told. With that, Mrs. Fudge signed on. She would become Murray's protege, staying involved with the studios for 45 years. During that time she owned six studios in Florida and became the first woman to sit on Arthur Murray's board of directors.
Mrs. Fudge, who led a successful business in changing times that left a mark on St. Petersburg, died Dec. 11 after a struggle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 93.
"She broke her glass ceiling when women didn't know there was a glass ceiling," said her daughter, Geneva Mueller, 72.
In 1950, James "Doc" Webb built Mrs. Fudge's first St. Petersburg studio on the roof of Webb's City, where she imparted Murray's philosophy of self-confidence through dance.
"She was in the self-esteem business," said Emmet Robinson, who couldn't dance a step before he met Mrs. Fudge at the Webb's City location. "Midway through the third session I was saying, 'I can do this,' " said Robinson, 75, who went on to become an instructor, then a nightclub performer.
Over time, thousands came to know Mrs. Fudge as an unstoppable force, a trim woman with a raspy cigarette voice who changed her tinted contact lenses from brown to pink to green when the mood struck her.
She learned diplomacy by watching Kathryn Murray, who voiced ideas to her husband so subtly he came to believe they were his own.
"Men can do their own thing in a direct way," she said 30 years ago. "Women plant seeds and wait."
Mrs. Fudge was born as Willine Davenport in Cherry, N.C., in 1920. By early adulthood she had been married and divorced and legally changed her name to Toni.
In the 1940s, Mrs. Fudge hopscotched as a trainer to Arthur Murray studios in Los Angeles; Vancouver, British Columbia, and Fort Worth, Texas. By 1948 she told Murray she wanted a franchise of her own.
Because Murray contended that married women made poor business owners, Mrs. Fudge, who wanted her own studio, promised her mentor she would not remarry. He brought her to supervise the New York City studio, then sent her to start franchises in Florida with a male business partner.
They started a studio in Tampa, where Mrs. Fudge trained future televangelist D. James Kennedy as a dance instructor. She opened the Webb's City studio three months later. She later moved to 1819 Central Ave.
In 1959, she married dentist Felix Fudge, breaking her pledge while invalidating the premise on which it was based. Mrs. Fudge was a driven, type-A boss who placed her business first. She trained her son, Felix, to teach dance classes, but fired him for doing his calculus homework on the job.
In 1975, she moved the studio to Fourth Street and 47th Avenue N. By then her daughter, Geneva, to whom she would sell the business, had taken over much of the teaching.
She threw herself into civic life, serving as president of the Symphony Guild, the Stuart Society and chairing the Queen of Hearts Ball.
"I used to call her my 'con friend,' " said Betty Scrim, a longtime friend. "She'd say, 'Let's meet for breakfast!' "
The invitation, Scrim said, meant a pitch to serve some worthy cause was coming. "She'd say, 'It won't take too much time. You won't get involved too much.' Those were some of her favorite ones."
To the end, Mrs. Fudge never missed an opportunity to teach someone how to dance, including her caregivers within the last three years.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.