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How a mutual 'love affair' led to a $2 million gift for USF St. Petersburg

Josephine Hall's father died when she was young, and her mother was often gone, traveling the world as a concert pianist.

She never married or had a family of her own — until she moved to St. Petersburg.

It was the 1960s, and though Hall was still splitting her time at a second home in New York City, she fell in love with her life in the Sunshine State. It was here, at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, just across the street from her downtown condo, that she finally found the true companionship she had wanted for so long.

Hall died in November 2017 at age 98, leaving the university $2 million. She pledged half to the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, where she could often be found reading or chatting about art.

How to spend the rest was left up to campus chancellor Martin Tadlock, who announced the gift in October. Now he is planning to launch improvements for students studying the arts in St. Petersburg, where programs are fewer and smaller than those available at USF Tampa.

In the spring, the chancellor will launch a fundraising campaign to match Hall's donation. In the meantime, the arts faculty at USF St. Petersburg will put together a spending plan. Tadlock hopes to double Hall's library contribution, too, knowing how much it meant to her.

"The library gave her something to get up and go do every day," said Debbie Cassill, a friend of Hall and an associate professor of biology at USF St. Petersburg. "I was unaware of her wealth and unaware she was donating to the university, but it makes sense in hindsight. It was her family."

Cynthia Orozco, Hall's longtime attorney who managed her estate, called her a "cultural junkie." She loved traveling and anything creative. Money didn't give her happiness; people and experiences did, Orozco said.

At USF St. Petersburg, Hall sat in on art history classes, soaking up all the knowledge she could, Cassill said. She also audited other classes, Tadlock said, doing the assignments even though she didn't have to.

Kathy Rodman moved into Hall's building, in a unit just two doors down, about eight years ago. Together, they read and went for walks. Hall showed Rodman her childhood yearbooks and paintings by famous artists. They discovered a mutual love for classical music.

"She would visit at my apartment and I would visit at hers," Rodman said. "She was a wonderful listener. … She was always very much interested in everyone around her."

When Hall's memory started to slip away, she moved into a retirement home. But Rodman kept up their regular visits, taking Hall to the park or for a drive, even when her friend could no longer recognize her.

"She always enjoyed my company even when she didn't know who I was anymore," she said.

Like Rodman, many at USF cared deeply for Hall. It was a "mutually beneficial love affair" that she had with the university, Cassill said, remembering Hall's stories about her lonely childhood and the community she longed for.

"So much of her life was seeking out an extended family and an extended home," the professor said. "I think she found that here."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.