December 2016 On The Cover Special Section

Lifetime Achievement Award Winner: Portia Taylor

Written By: Chris Eversole

For many years, the name Portia Taylor was synonymous with Santa Fe College. Throughout her time there, the passionate, hardworking Gainesville transplant grew to be a national leader in community college organizations.

Taylor, who capped a 40-year career at the college in 2012, also bolstered many local civic, business and government organizations — from the board of the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to the Alachua County Planning Commission.

“Portia’s life works truly embody my favorite quotation by Marian Wright Edelman, ‘Service is the rent we pay for being, it is the only purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time,’” said Cynthia Chestnut, vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party and a friend of Taylor’s.

Taylor is also consumed with enlightening her audience about the virtues of service. “I never let any of my accomplishment go to my head,” she said. “I never have and never will. Never get caught in the position or the title. You’ve got to be a real human being.”

Taylor recalls a longtime receptionist telling her, “When students are waiting to see you, they’re crying, and they’re sad. When they walk out, they’re smiling and they’re happy. You fixed it for them.”

She attributes this success to her approach in dealing with student problems: “We’re not here to weed them out. We’re here to help them grow.”

Taylor credits her mentor, former president Alan Robertson, with guiding her personally, as well. “He said, ‘Don’t get a dog; it will tie you down. Don’t get a second mortgage. Life isn’t fair, but you can be,’” she recalled.

Taylor was working at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when she met former University of Florida Community Education Administrator Chester Leathers through a professional organization.

Leathers tried to entice her to consider working at what was then known as Santa Fe Community College. “We didn’t entertain the idea of community education; you went to college. This was a new concept that I didn’t fully understand,” Taylor said.

“I said, ‘I’m not really interested in that,’” she recalled.

Leathers enticed her to come to Gainesville “just to check things out.”

“It was February, and when I got on the plane it was chilly,” she said. “When I got off the plane, it was a balmy 72 degrees, and the palm trees were swaying.”

Upon arrival, Taylor met with Robert Myers, the then-vice president of educational programs at Santa Fe. The college’s strong emphasis on providing opportunities for everyone appealed to Taylor, who had started her career as a social worker.

“I was 26 years old, and what [Myers] was describing was exciting,” she said. “I saw an opportunity to prevent the kinds of things that I had seen in my social work. The people I had worked with as a social worker were unemployed or under-employed.”

Santa Fe had an open-door policy, with no admission restrictions, she noted. “That appealed to me,” she said. “I really was able to make the connection between what I wanted in my heart to do — to help people move ahead and stop a cycle of poverty. That was happening at Santa Fe.”

Myers called a month later, notifying her that the dean of community education position was available. She interviewed with Myers and Robertson, and then accepted the job.

“With an open-door policy, students could come in, and we could assess where they were. We had a little therapy thrown in,” she said. “A student would say, ‘I want to be a doctor, but I don’t like math and science.’ Then we had the reality therapy. ‘Let’s look at something else in the medical field that doesn’t have all the same requirements. Maybe an X-ray technologist.’”

The community education program that Taylor headed was part of a partnership with the University of Florida and Alachua County Schools, with classes offered at public schools across the county. Academic classes were offered as well as vocational classes. “We had courses that led to certificates and people getting jobs. It was small engine repair, aviation and plumbing and heating and air conditioning,” she remembered.

A few years later, Robertson called Taylor. “He had been watching me, unbeknownst to me,” she said. “He said, ‘I like what you’re doing, and I’d you to be assistant to the president.’”

Robertson pushed her community involvement. “He saw something in me that I didn’t quite see. He said, ‘There are a lot of things that I want you to do in this position. I want you to understand and know every aspect of the college. I want you to know our community. I want you to know our elected officials. I want you to know county and city commissioners, school board members. I want you to know our legislators.’”

Robertson also encouraged Taylor to serve in community groups — including the United Way, March of Dimes, cultural arts coalitions, Girl Scouts and Haven Hospice. She served on the boards of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce, the airport authority and on the Alachua County Planning Commission. “He put me out there,” she said. “I became the face of the college. I represented the college at these meetings.”

Taylor helped the college respond quickly when companies needed to train workers. “One of the things that we prided ourselves on is a quick response. Nationwide or any other company coming to town, they can talk about it for a year. They need training now. We could come on your site and train your workers,” she explained. “We can train you to stay here and be nurses and plumbers and teachers and all of that.”

In between all of her other activities, Taylor completed a doctorate in higher education at UF in 1987, and she was promoted to vice president of academic affairs at Santa Fe.

In her final 10 years, Taylor served as vice president of student affairs. “It was great job to culminate my career,” she said. “I really got an opportunity to work one-on-one with students to overcome whatever obstacle they had.”

Taylor explained, “There’s so much more that goes into helping student than academics — from financial aid to counseling services to advisement services. Extracurricular activities, like athletics and student clubs, engage students and make them feel like they’re a part of things.”

When WUSF-TV was planning to start a public affairs program, with an emphasis on highlighting the minority community, a producer met with Taylor for topic suggestions. A few weeks later, the station asked her to audition to host the show.

“They gave me the resume of Vinnie Jones, the producer, and gave me five minutes to read it. What they didn’t know is that they had someone who loved people, loved to talk. I loved to talk to people and get things out of [the guests].”

Although most of her guests were local people, some were famous people who came to town — including Winnie Mandela, the wife of Nelson Mandela, who became the president of South Africa. She also met civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and actor John Amos.

Additionally, she announced the Gator Homecoming Parade and, with Bill Sabin, the Fanfare and Fireworks Fourth of July event.

Since retiring, Taylor has backed off of her community involvement so she can be free to travel. She’s already taken trips to Brazil, her home state of Virginia, Las Vegas and Memphis (to see all things Elvis). “It’s time to let other people do things,” she said. “It’s nice being stress-free. My biggest worry now is the ice maker and my car — things that you can fix.”

She’s been part of a local bridge club for 16 years. Terry Van Nortwick is a member of the bridge club and a frequent travel companion of Taylor’s. “I’ve known Portia for at least 35 years. I’ve always admired the amazing career she has had. I don’t think there is an organization in town she hasn’t touched. She has shown by example how to lead gracefully, how to succeed in the world of higher education and how to show other women how to survive and thrive in an arena that is dominated by men. Our community is so blessed to have had her live here all these years and she is a dear and treasured friend,” said Van Nortwick.

As she reflected on her life, Taylor summarized her career approach: “I always saw my job as being an advocate — an advocate for students, an advocate for staff, an advocate for my colleagues. Make sure things get done. You can’t have an ego.”

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