Harriet Foundas loved the spotlight.
Like, the actual spotlight.
As a child, she performed on “The Amateur Hour” TV show. She later recorded several singles as the lead singer with Jacqueline and the Jills.
But she found stardom on a different stage, and it was inside Tampa’s West Shore Elementary School. There, for 32 years, Foundas served as principal. She led generations of elementary schoolers and teachers. She helped bring the school back from a D to an A ranking. And she oversaw multiple renovations of the building.
But Foundas’ biggest role might have been behind the scenes, encouraging her staff to strive for more.
“It all comes down to helping people to be the best they can,” Foundas said in a 2006 St. Petersburg Times profile.
She died Oct. 9 at 79 of an aortic aneurysm.
The role of a lifetime
The New York City native came to Tampa for college and never left. She taught first at Tinker Elementary School, and there found a mentor and a model in principal Winifred Horton.
“I’m not sure if she saw a spark in me,” Foundas said in 2006. “But she motivated me.”
Foundas became principal at Tinker, and in 1976, made the move to West Shore. There, she followed her mentor’s example. Foundas offered a cafeteria worker a job in the classroom after seeing how she worked with children. She encouraged a teacher’s aide to become the school’s data processing clerk, the Times reported in 2006. Again and again, once Foundas spotted potential, she’d push until it was lived up to.
“I think Harriet had trouble understanding anybody who wasn’t trying to better themselves,” said Linda Dortch, who served as the principal of Ballast Point Elementary School and first became friends with Foundas in graduate school. “She saw promise and had the gift of patience.”
Foundas was also great at selling jobs in education — make more money, get insurance, earn retirement and make a difference.
“She was quite a salesman,” Dortch said.
“She was one who would empower teachers,” said Sylvia Albritton, who worked in several roles in education, including as principal at Robinson High School. “That to me is the best sign of a good administrator. Let them grow.”
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Let’s make a deal
Foundas also had an eye for a deal.
Once a week or so, she’d go hunting at TJ Maxx and Ross Dress For Less. When her son, Scott, was in high school, Foundas went with him to buy his first used car.
“She was so relentless in trying to negotiate the price down with the used car salesman, he offered to give her a further reduction if she promised to go away and never come back,” Scott Foundas said.
Whatever she was doing, Foundas always looked good doing it. Her outfits, bags, shoes and jewelry always matched, her hair was an unmoving blond cloud, and nothing got in the way of her weekly Saturday hair appointments.
She got proximity to stardom thanks to her son, a longtime film critic and now an executive with Amazon Studios, with frequent trips to see Broadway shows in New York when he lived there and then to movie premieres and selfies with actors after he moved to Los Angeles.
But her son and friends think the true stars in Foundas’ life were her dogs over the years. Her most recent, a Yorkie named Dolly, got scrambled eggs on Sunday and fresh chicken each night for dinner.
The marvelous Mrs. Foundas
Foundas retired from West Shore in 2008. She still got recognized when out at a restaurant or Publix, and former students would come say hello. She usually remembered their names, Dortch said.
“They almost always said, ‘and you haven’t changed a bit.’”
Foundas stayed connected to her former colleagues and school, her son said. The week before her death, she attended the retirement party for a teacher Foundas hired. That school and the people in it were her masterpieces. The library is even named in her honor.
But every now and then, Foundas wondered aloud to her friend what would have happened if she’d stayed in show business.
“Well, you would be good at it,” Dortch replied. “Harriet didn’t give up.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.