USF’s Real "First Lady"
Grace Allen was nicknamed "Amazing Grace" by Tampa Congressman Sam Gibbons. According to friends, neighbors, and colleagues, she always lived up to her name. As the wife of John Allen, the first and longest-serving president at the University of South Florida, she watched as the University grew from a few classrooms in a single building to a top-tier research and teaching university with three campuses.
Grace Allen was 99 years old when she passed away shortly before noon on Sunday, December 16, 2007. USF President Judy Genshaft reacted with sadness at the news of Allen's passing, saying "The USF family has lost one of our true treasures."
"USF's heart is broken because we've lost a woman who has been the core of the University's founding," Genshaft said. Grace Allen was as much a part of the university's development as her husband, John.
"She was a model first lady during the time USF was born, and she continuously remained connected to the university," Genshaft said. "Allen brought critical social graces, and some keen and clever behind-the-scenes persuasiveness. She was highly intelligent, remarkable memory, supportive and caring, always watchful of the University's development and exhibited pride in its growth."
Gibbons, who is considered the founder of USF, said Allen was an extremely intelligent woman who was not shy about speaking her mind. This trait led to Gibbons' other, more ironic nickname for her, "Silent Grace."
"Dr. (John) Allen was a Quaker and he would start each meal by asking for a moment of silent grace," Gibbons recalled. "Whenever he said that, I would look at Grace and smile. I would call her ‘Silent Grace' because she would never be shy about speaking up."
Born Grace Carlton in North Dakota on June 20, 1908, she spent her childhood in both North and South Dakota. She attended the University of South Dakota and the University of Minnesota, where she majored in English and Secondary Education.
She met John Allen at the University of Minnesota and they were married in 1933. The couple came to USF from Gainesville in 1957, a year before the university even had a name and three years before the first classes.
In July 1960, she invited every USF wife and female staff member to come to her home. Together, they established the USF Women's Club, which continues to this day as a social, cultural, and charitable volunteer organization. Anita Carr, a charter member of the club, recalled Grace as a wonderful public speaker.
"I don't think I ever heard her say ‘er' or ‘ah'," Carr said. "She was absolutely perfect. I don't know too many people that could give too many talks without hesitating." She stood with her husband until his retirement in July 1970 at the age of 63. The Board of Regents named USF's administration building after John and Grace Allen in recognition of their tireless efforts for the university. John Allen passed away in December 1982.
Betty Castor, who served as USF president from 1994 to 1999, said Grace helped lay the foundation for USF "Grace Allen was truly the ‘First Lady' of the university," Castor said. "She understood the university and throughout her life was never far from its heart. "During my tenure as president, she was a constant source of history about the early days and a powerful spokesperson for the academic excellence that she understood was the primary mission of USF," Castor said. "She helped to organize the University Women's Club and remained an active member. USF has lost a guiding spirit and a champion.
Grace Allen was known and loved in the Original Carrollwood community, where she and her husband moved in the early 1960's, recalled Matt Jetton, owner of Sunstate Builders, which founded the community in 1959. At the time, Jetton said Carrollwood was becoming a popular spot for USF staff and faculty to buy homes. She was a woman who "was very interested in the Carrollwood community," Jetton said. "She enjoyed being a part of the community and doing as much as she could to improve things. "Her most enduring contribution to Carrollwood was the Christmas Eve tradition of the neighborhood Luminaries, said Carrollwood Civic Association president, Mark Snellgrove. Beginning in the mid-1960's, residents would set lit candles in bags with sand outside their homes on Christmas Eve. "It's a tradition she started that continues to this day," Snellgrove said. "I've been told pilots divert their planes to see the neighborhood during this time."
The legacy of John and Grace Allen will endure in the institution they guided, the scholarships that bear their names, and the countless friends, colleagues, and graduates whose lives were enriched by this amazing couple.
Donations may be made in Grace Allen's name to the John and Grace Allen Scholarship Fund at the USF Foundation, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., ALC 100, Tampa, FL. 33620.