ST. PETERSBURG — Bea Griswold had many lessons to teach.
She taught those around her about the values of compassion. About public service. Loyalty, trust, honesty.
As a public school teacher for 35 years, she’d leave her purse on her desk as a bank for students who forgot their lunch. They could take what they needed, and were trusted like her own children to pay it back before they sought more.
Later, she brought her leadership to the City Council, replacing her term-limited husband to serve eight years of her own. Twice named council chair, she held the gavel with humility yet ran a disciplined meeting.
“She set the tone for civility,” recalled former Mayor Bill Foster, whom Ms. Griswold mentored on the council. “There were some times when some things could have gone sour and she really set the tone. She was strong, she was firm, but she was graceful.”
Ms. Griswold died Aug. 12 of cancer. She was 86.
The Bea Griswold who became a stalwart for her adopted community of St. Petersburg had her roots on a farm in Vermont. One of seven children in a depression-era family, her parents still gave each child 50 cents during Christmastime to buy a gift for every member of the family. That’s how she learned the importance of giving, generosity and sacrifice.
Her civic life began years later, when, as a Pinellas County teacher in 1968, she joined educators from across the state in a mass resignation over a lack of school funding. Before doing so, Ms. Griswold held a family meeting to explain the implications to her four children. Her husband was recently retired from the military and it would mean the household would go without an income. That’s how her one son and three daughters learned about sacrifice.
Ms. Griswold later became the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teacher’s Association, where her deftness and emotional intelligence shone through.
In one memorable encounter, a male School Board member pushing a teacher dress code suggested all educators should dress like Ms. Griswold, who was meticulous about her presentation, and that day sported a dress and heels to the board meeting. She gently yet firmly dismissed the notion, saying if he found her in her classroom, she might have on tennis shoes.
“And that’s absolutely Bea" diplomatically defusing a situation, said former City Council administrator Terri Lipsey Scott, a member of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority and executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
Ms. Griswold ran for the legislature twice in the 1960s and ’70s. Then in 1993, after retiring from the classroom, she sought to replace her term-limited husband on the council.
The council chambers are where she left her most noticeable marks on the city. She served as the city courted Major League Baseball for an expansion team to play in what is now called Tropicana Field. After watching a news segment in which Dan Rather stood in front of the Vinoy in St. Petersburg and signed off from “Tampa,” she sent a letter to the baseball suits and national media parachuting in from New York.
"There is no city called Tampa Bay," Griswold wrote. "The stadium is in St. Petersburg, Florida. St. Petersburg is the city spending, yearning, waiting and paying."
It might eventually be called the “Tampa Bay Whatevers,” she added, but “the CITY IS ST. PETERSBURG when you talk expansion.”
She could be a firecracker when she had to be. Like when, as chairwoman, she would temporarily give up her role to Foster when the council was discussing issues she was passionate about. Because of decorum, chairs can make only limited contributions to the discussion.
“She’d say ‘I’m going to pass the gavel to you, because I’m going to raise hell,’” Foster said.
Ms. Griswold’s fingerprints remain today. She was instrumental in the city purchasing Sunken Gardens, and she helped complete her husband’s mission of building a veterans memorial in Williams Park.
The most important roles she ever had, though, were familial. She had a knack for relating to the children in her family — which at the time of her death had about 100 members. When her preteen great, great nieces came to visit Florida last year, they favored romping around St. Petersburg with her to Disney World.
And when her son-in-law would go to social gatherings and the requisite mother-in-law jokes would start among the men, he would have to bow out.
“I’m sorry," he’d say, according to daughter Terri Reynolds. "I can’t engage in this discussion because I have the best mother-in-law on the planet.”