On May 4, 1980, the St. Petersburg Times published a story that started this way: “Jean Giles Wittner may be the most successful self-made businesswoman in Florida.”
“Sure, there are women who run large businesses, make big salaries, control great wealth — and do it admirably,” the Times wrote, “but almost all got the opportunity to show what they could do by being the daughter or wife of an important man, or sometimes by shrewd investment of inherited wealth. But the woman known as Jean Giles is truly the Cinderella of Florida Business. Eighteen months ago, she even married her Prince Charming and added Wittner to her name.”
Mrs. Wittner’s life was not a fairy tale. No magic, no fairy godmothers, no helpful mice. The villains she fought were made from time and tradition.
But she built a career, led St. Petersburg organizations and helped develop downtown St. Petersburg with her husband. She died from natural causes on Sept. 2 at 86.
Her triumphs didn’t come because she was the only woman in the room.
They came because she was often the smartest person there.
Mrs. Wittner was the first woman to serve:
- As president of the St. Petersburg Federal Savings and Loan Association
- As president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce
- As chairperson of the United Way of Pinellas County
- On the board of Florida Power Corp.
- On the board of the St. Petersburg Commerce Club
But she started at the switchboard.
In 1951, after high school, marriage, motherhood and divorce, Mrs. Wittner and her son, Jim, moved in with her parents, and she got a job at the St. Petersburg Federal Savings and Loan Association.
She and Jim spent weekends working on her parents’ farm, sleeping on cots around an open fire. When Jim was 10, she helped him buy a riding lawn mower and start his own business.
“I worked hard to pay her back for the ‘loan’ she gave me to get the mower,” he said, “and I learned a lot from that experience.”
By 1975, after decades of promotions, Mrs. Wittner became the Savings and Loan’s president. In 1978, she married developer Ted P. Wittner, who admired and shared her drive.
“For the three years the Wittners ‘went together,’ Jean says she rather dreaded the subject of marriage,” the Times reported in 1980, “‘I was afraid he would ask me to quit my job.’ But she says when they finally did discuss it, ‘He said: not only would I not ask you to give up your job, if you suggested it, I’d urge you not to.’”
Together, the Wittners founded Colony Bank and built City Center in downtown St. Petersburg, which helped spark a revitalization there. They were founding members of the St. Petersburg Downtown Improvement Corp. and spent decades on the boards of philanthropic organizations, including those that supported education in Tampa Bay.
Mrs. Wittner, who was a tennis player, also learned golf with her husband, which she soon and regularly beat him at.
The Wittners combined families and traditions when they married. She grew up Baptist, he was Jewish. She took turns hosting Passover and went to the synagogue for Jewish High Holidays.
“She definitely embraced our religion but also kept her own,” said Pamela Wittner LeCompte, one of Wittner’s two daughters.
Sister-in-law Marilyn Wittner didn’t see Mrs. Wittner at work, but she did see how she was with their family — soft-spoken, considerate, tactful. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren adored her.
“I can imagine that in a room where decisions were being made, she would have said very little until it was getting close to the end, and then she would have presented her arguments,” Marilyn Wittner said.
Mrs. Wittner didn’t talk about how she went from running a switchboard to running a company, but when things weren’t going well for someone, Marilyn Wittner said, “she would remind them of what could happen if you just keep persisting and you just keep working hard, and that’s what she did.”
It took Marc Jacobson a while to figure out his grandma was a big deal. His grandparents were his mentors in business and in the example they set with their relationship.
“There wasn’t anything she did that wasn’t kind of groundbreaking in the business world,” he said.
She didn’t talk about the obstacles she’d faced or was facing, or that she was usually the first and only woman in the room.
“She just did it.”
Again. And again. And again.
“I believe in being so good at your job that you can’t be overlooked,” she said to a Times journalist in 1985. “I never cared to be singled out as a woman bank president. I hope someday that type of thinking will be gone.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
Sign up for Kristen Hare’s newsletter and learn the stories behind our obituaries
Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at email@example.com.