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As Helen Levine retires, USF St. Pete loses a quiet but formidable force

In civic roles, including 14 years at the university, she has worked behind the scenes to attract funding and good will.

Helen Levine grew up as an “academic brat” in Tallahassee, the daughter of a professor who moved between college towns and taught life lessons at the dining room table.

As a child, she thought everyone knew words like “tenure.” And she learned to be fascinated by what fascinates faculty, a quality that served her well these last 11 years as regional chancellor for external relations at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.

When Levine, 63, retires on Friday, her colleagues say they will bid farewell to a quiet but formidable force who worked behind the scenes to secure the campus’ growth,

“I think her legacy is in the depth of the relationships she created,” said USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock. He called Levine his right-hand person, keeping him abreast of each twist and turn as legislators debated funding and other matters affecting the campus.

“We are a tax-supported, public entity. We have a kind of obligation to be accessible and serve the needs of a community,” Tadlock said. “We wouldn’t be fulfilling our mission as a public institution without Helen Levine.”

Levine first witnessed USF St. Petersburg’s blossoming fortunes when she attended the ribbon cutting of its bookstore in the early 2000s while working for then-Mayor Rick Baker. Later, as a USF employee, she saw her role as a matchmaker of sorts.

On good days, that meant securing financial support for the university, she said. Other times, it meant finding a champion for someone’s research.

She said she enjoyed meeting with faculty members and learning about their interests — from the Florida Studies program to marine sciences or archaeological work. She would then share their vision or invite others to engage with their work.

A faculty’s passions, Levine said, are what drives student success and integrates a university into the intellectual fabric of its community.

“It’s such a joy when you find out what folks care about and match them with people who can support their work,” she said. “Folks want to help. They want to be invited. They just needed to be asked.”

She joined the University in 2006 as a policy and communications advisor to then-USF President Judy Genshaft before moving in 2009 to St. Petersburg, where she is credited with helping secure state money for many of the buildings on campus.

She also worked with former City Council member Karl Nurse on multiple projects, including renaming Second Street to “University Way,” a north-south stretch of downtown pavement that runs several blocks from campus to the Palladium Theater.

Levine said the new name helped send a message that St. Petersburg was “hip.” Nurse said he enjoyed working with her.

“She was the smartest person in the room, but she didn’t shove that down your throat,” he said. “She would ask for your help to support a cause she had already convinced you was a good cause. It was never about Helen. In politics, you don’t see that often.”

Nurse said Levine was equally adept at working with liberals and conservatives, those who supported a cause and those who didn’t. He said she “kept her eye on the prize,” working under different leaders and dynamics that at times created tensions, even within USF.

“In a time of partisan politics, she made everyone an ally, and that’s a rare skill,” Nurse said. “I’m not sure I can explain how she did, but she did it over and over and over again.”

Although Levine was in charge of “external affairs,” Tadlock said, she is not someone he would describe as an extrovert. One of her strengths is being able to adapt to changing situations, he said.

Levine said she stayed focused on the work people were doing.

“Everyone loves universities,” she said. “Universities help the economy grow, and that’s a nonpartisan issue. They create other jobs and contribute to the growth of knowledge.”

As USF’s St. Petersburg campus has grown, she said, so has the city.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes called Levine the “Jiminy Cricket” on his shoulder, guiding his decision-making for nearly a decade.

“In this line of work, it’s rare to meet someone who becomes a friend,” he said. “She is one of the finest people I’ve met and someone I’ve come to love and trust.”

Brandes said Levine has always been a fierce advocate for the university, but also someone he could turn to when he needed advice on a legislative matter.

“She has a quiet wisdom,” he said.

Florida’s next House Speaker, state Rep. Chris Sprowls, said Levine’s sense of loyalty and willingness to wait at times for hours outside an office to get a meeting made her a trusted presence in Tallahassee.

“Truth was her currency,” said Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican. “Helen was your friend in good times and bad. She was someone you could trust. ... I can’t think of anyone who is a bigger advocate for that campus and for all the students of Pinellas County if they wanted to study there.”

Levine said her father used to say that if you lined up 100 social workers, they’d be doing 100 different things, each of them important. That, she said, has been her approach to learning about legislators and faculty.

She’s looking forward to fewer text messages and emails. And, after more than 30 years in the public sector and serving on boards, she’s heard that the first rule of retirement is to say no.

Still, she plans to spend more time in her role on the Florida Holocaust Museum’s board, and with her wife, an artist in the community. She also has signed up for a rotation of gardeners who weed each other’s yards.

In addition to the museum, her civic involvement has included work with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, Tampa Bay Businesses for Arts and Culture, Vision Florida, Gulfcoast Jewish Family and Community Services, and the Downtown Waterfront Parks Foundation.

She said she has high hopes for the St. Petersburg campus, even as state universities face uncertain challenges ahead.

“I’m wildly optimistic that this community and university will continue to support each other and thrive together,” Levine said.

Some of that hope comes from those childhood discussions around the dining room table, where her mother, who worked as a therapist, would often weigh in. Levine once thought she too would become a therapist, and said the best training she received for her work as a lobbyist was answering a crisis center hotline. She never knew what someone might be going through on the other end.

“There’s always a solution,” Levine said. “For a second though, you just got to listen.”