University’s former first lady cared for students with ‘grace’

Sitting in the Old Floridian hotel one night in 1957, John Allen, USF’s first president, and campus planner Jefferson Hamilton drew out where they thought every building in the University should be.

Allen envisioned a campus that drew strength from a quiet, peaceful core, former USF President Betty Castor said. That late-night sketch stands today, wrought out of metal, bricks and mortar, though some may say its heart – its core – came from Allen’s wife, Grace.

As USF’s first lady, Grace Allen helped develop the University from its inception, when it was just a plot of grass overlooking a dirt road called Fowler Avenue, to its status as the nation’s ninth-largest university. And, until her death on Dec. 16, 2007, she oversaw it all with one concern in mind: students’ well-being.

“She was the epitome of the spirit of this University,” former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons (D) said at her March 7 memorial. “She loved people, and she shared that love with everyone.”

Attendees filled nearly every seat in Traditions Hall and others stood, dotting the fringes of the room, all there to share how Allen had impacted their lives. One by one, faculty, family, community leaders and students stood in front of Allen’s portrait – made larger than life-size with the aid of a projector – and discussed what Allen meant to them and the University.

USF alumnus Christopher Koehler said he met Allen as a student, when he called and asked if she’d be a judge for a competition hosted by the School of Architecture in 1995. She agreed, and so Koehler said he decided to visit her at John Knox Village. While he said it felt like community service at first, he soon became friends with Allen, visiting her monthly.

Upon Allen’s request, Koehler would drive her around the Tampa campus, pointing out new buildings and describing USF’s developments. After the drive, she and Koehler would sit on benches outside of different buildings on campus, he said, and she’d stop students on their way to and from class in an effort to get to know them.

“She loved seeing the growth of this University,” he said. “In the earlier years, when she could leave John Knox Village, and we’d sit and talk to students, she would just light up when talking to them. She’d ask about how they were doing in their classes, what they thought about the University, how their day was going. She genuinely cared about how they felt.”

When she could no longer leave to visit with students on campus, Koehler said Allen kept in touch with students’ activity by having a friend drop off each month’s issues of the Oracle, and by having others regularly update her on University activities.

“Very few of us can say they’ve been a part of all the milestones of this University, but Grace was,” said USF President Judy Genshaft. “Her passion for USF went beyond the fact that her husband was the first president.”

Born June 20, 1908, as Grace Carlton, she was raised in North and South Dakota before attending the University of Minnesota, where she met John Allen. The two wed in 1933, and, according to Grace Allen’s oral history of the University, came to USF despite two offers John received to serve as university president elsewhere. They arrived at the University in 1957 – a year before USF had a name, and three years before its first buildings were erected, reported.

She watched as the first building opened on campus – the John and Grace Allen Administration building. She selected the University’s colors because she liked the way green and gold flowers looked together in a table arrangement, according to She stood by as 325 students received degrees during the University’s first graduation ceremony in 1963, the USF Web site reported. And, according to Grace Allen’s oral history of the University, though building a stadium and other related expenses prevented the creation of the football program during John Allen’s tenure, she attended USF’s inaugural football game in 1997.

“When I took her to the first football game, Grace said that she felt guilty because her husband was adamant that there wouldn’t be football at USF,” Carol Jones, USF Women’s Club president, said. “She cheered throughout the game, and afterward she turned to me and said she thought he’d approve of it.”

John Allen believed that academics shouldn’t suffer to accommodate athletics, reported, so as University enrollment blossomed in USF’s early years and funding stagnated, Allen focused spending on improving the quality of education. John Allen died Dec. 26, 1982, after fighting Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia, 15 years before the football program launched.

When not attending University milestones, Grace Allen set a few herself, such as the USF Women’s Club, which she founded in 1960, Jones said. A social and philanthropic organization, the club held events and raised money to create a Grace Allen endowed scholarship for nontraditional students. From 1994 to 2004, the fund provided 119 full-tuition scholarships to students, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

One recipient of the scholarship, elementary education major Gloria Harvey, said the scholarship kept her in college.

“As a single mother of two, it’d be an extreme financial hardship to pay for everything myself, but this scholarship enabled me to stay and graduate,” she said. “It’s an honor to receive it.”

Allen’s contributions to the University community and her ability to deliver powerful speeches at the end of University meetings earned her the nickname “Amazing Grace,” friends said.

“Sometimes she had notes, and sometimes she didn’t, but every time she would make a killer speech and steal the throne from everyone,” Castor said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m the president. I’m supposed to be doing that.’ But she spoke with so much passion for the University.”

Though other University administrators echoed Castor’s comments, Christine Chambers, Allen’s niece, said Allen often downplayed her talent for public speaking.

“After a speech, if she got a standing ovation, she’d use a euphemism,” Chambers said. “She’d simply say, ‘people were kind to me,’ and we’d know that she knocked their socks off.”

As the memorial ended, the USF Chamber Singers rose and sang “Amazing Grace” in tribute to the former first lady. A few attendees pushed tears from the corners of welled eyes, though Chambers said Allen wouldn’t want anyone to cry.

“She would be annoyed if we spent the memorial – if we spent this opportunity to be together – to mourn her death rather than celebrate her life,” she said. “She’d probably kick me in the shins and say, ‘That’s not appropriate. That’s not right.'”

Allen’s impact on others’ lives reached beyond those she regularly spoke to. Like Harvey, biomedical sciences major Paul Tran received a scholarship in Allen’s name, though his came from the Honors College. Neither recipient had the chance to meet Allen before her death, though both said they felt closer to her after attending the memorial.

“When I received the scholarship I immediately went online to learn about her, and that gave me a lot of facts and figures, but the memorial gave me a chance to get to know her on a personal level,” Tran said. “Seeing what a great person she was makes me really sad that I never got to meet her. (Because of the memorial), I’m going to visit the Library to listen to her oral history and get to know her better.”