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Early on, it was a strong Pentecostal black woman and a Jewish woman who helped Joyce Russell become who she is today.

The black woman was her mother, Evie Green. She nurtured Joyce in an all-black neighborhood in Clearwater, hammered into her the importance of education.

The Jewish woman was Phyllis Busansky, who showed up at Pinellas High School when Joyce was a sophomore, telling students about an exam called the SAT. Busansky felt they should be able to go to any college, not just the historically black ones, and predominantly white colleges required an SAT score.

So she tutored students to take the test, then helped to create a group called the College Fund to mentor kids and raise money for their educations.

In 1967, Russell graduated as valedictorian of Pinellas High and used scholarships and work study to attend the mostly white Florida Presbyterian College, now known as Eckerd College.

"I took a risk," she said this week. "I wanted my world to be as broad as it could be."

That was where a well-off white woman named Ruth Williams came in.

The College Fund appointed her to be Joyce's adviser. She lived in a big house in Belleair Bluffs and took a particular liking to Joyce.

They would go to the meat market and pick out fresh chicken and choice cuts, then sit down with Mrs. Williams' husband for dinner in the family's formal dining room, eating with real silver over a lace tablecloth.

She took Joyce shopping, too, to Maas Brothers for skirt and blouse sets. Joyce was careful not to ask for something that might be costly, but Mrs. Williams could figure out what caught her eye.

"Do you like it?" she'd ask.

She let Joyce choose patterns and fabrics for dresses that Mrs. Williams made herself. One day, Joyce was trying on a dress, admiring it in the full-length mirror, when Mrs. Williams said something like, "You know, Joyce, you're making me feel just like you were my own daughter."

Years later, Joyce realized the gravity of what her mentor had said.

At the time, civil rights leaders crusaded for equal treatment for black people, but Mrs. Williams was already reaching out.

"This lady had somehow transcended color. She no longer saw a little black girl. She just saw a little girl who reminded her of her daughter at that age."

But college was tough in the beginning. The white students seemed able to read faster and express themselves better.

"It was so hard," Joyce said. Once a valedictorian, "I felt inferior."

Mrs. Williams would call and ask how things were going. Sensing Joyce was discouraged, she invited her to lunch.

"You are special," she told Joyce. She had no doubt that she would graduate.The confidence that Mrs. Williams had in her kept Joyce going.

Today, Joyce (Green) Russell, 58, is the African-American liaison for Hillsborough County and works at the County Center downtown. She keeps people in black communities informed, empowering them to get involved in government initiatives. She was a key link between African-Americans and the County Commission during efforts to redraw voting districts in 2000.

Russell, of Brandon, has worked with the NAACP and is on the University of South Florida's advisory committee that raises money for student scholarships. She has also spearheaded discussions between black leaders and government officials in potentially volatile situations.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this week, she was presented the Robert W. Saunders award for her commitment to community service.

In her acceptance speech, she talked about the women who had a major impact on her life.

"I'm the product," she said, "of races coming together, doing what was right."

Joyce's mother has passed away and Busansky, of course, served as a Hillsborough County commissioner and is now considering a run for supervisor of elections.

Mrs. Williams?

She and Joyce didn't see each other much after that lunch.

One day, another adviser with the College Fund called. Mrs. Williams had terminal cancer and was too sick to visit but didn't want Joyce to know, fearing it would hinder her studies.

"I hung up and I just cried my eyes out," Joyce said.

About six months later, Joyce took a trip to San Francisco. She returned to her mother's house, where bouquets of flowers overflowed from the inside to the porch.

Where did she get all these beautiful flowers?

They're for you, her mother said, tearing up.

Mrs. Williams had died while she was away and requested that all the flowers from her funeral be given to Joyce.

Telling the story decades later, Joyce cried at the thought that the white woman who had been like a godmother didn't live to see her graduate from Florida Presbyterian in 1971.

People like that, she said, "there's a light in them. Goodness. I believe there's good in them that makes you who you are supposed to be."

Sharon Tubbs is editor of the City Times local news section in Tampa.