July 28, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Betty Castor

Former education commissioner, University of South Florida president, lawmaker, teacher, age 66.

Art Levy | 10/1/2007

After college, from 1963 to 1965, I taught secondary school in Uganda. My own family thought I was crazy. They warned me I should not do this. But it was a very idealistic time. I thought I could make a contribution. I wasn’t filled with the idea that I had to make big bucks.

At the time, it seemed very safe to me. Now, of course, everybody knows the legacy of Idi Amin, but that came right after my experience.

I enrolled at the University of Miami to get an advanced degree in education. I was penniless and decided I had to get a job, so I went to the Dade school district and said I’d like to work, and they said, ‘Well, if you’d like to work, we’re only hiring white teachers for our formerly minority schools.’ They had a vacancy at Holmes Elementary School, so I said I’d take it. This was a tough school, right in the heart of Liberty City. I had a wonderful experience there. Again, I felt like I could make a contribution.


Betty Castor [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

The way a school looks says a lot about what happens inside. Is it clean? Is it organized? It says something about the pride.

I had children and became involved in public affairs, particularly environmental issues. I became president of the League of Women Voters and that gave me an opportunity to mix and mingle with some of the governmental folks. We decided it was time to reform the county commission, and I invited a group of people over to my home one night to talk about who we could get to run for some of these local offices. And people were saying, ‘Betty, why don’t you do it?’ So after a little bit of persuasion I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, and I ran for county commission.

There were 11 candidates in my primary. I was the top vote getter, and I had a runoff. I was the only female, and all of my male opponents except for one endorsed my opponent. But I won.

I had that incident when I was asked to leave the University Club in Tampa. It was 1974. At the time it was an all-male club, and women were not permitted there for lunch. But I was invited by Dick Greco, the mayor then. I went to the back room at the appointed time and sat down. The waitress came in and she looked at me and I ordered something and she came back and said, ‘Mrs. Castor, you’ll have to leave.’ Then, a hostess came back and she said, ‘Mrs. Castor, you’ll have to leave and if you don’t, we’ll have to do something.’ I didn’t want to make a scene, so I got out. I didn’t know whether to cry or to get mad. I decided I ought to get mad. I went back to the courthouse, and I had a little press conference and I talked about it. When I was elected later to the state Senate, one of my first bills provided that public meetings could not be held in places that discriminated. So I feel like I got the last word. And I’ve been back there for lunch.

When I was education commissioner, I worked very hard to get the first pre-K programs going, and I think that’s very important. It has grown, and I’m very proud of that.

I share the view of Charlie Reed (former chancellor of the State University System), who says Florida is really a state, in terms of higher education, that’s on the cheap.Our tax situation is catching up with us. People are in rebellion because they don’t like the property tax, but we have so many loopholes in the sales tax, and the Legislature and the leadership will just not address that.

I truly loved being a university president. The only reason you exist is to impart knowledge.

It was unfortunate he (Sami Al-Arian) was ever at USF. You react to things based on the best knowledge that you have. It’s a frustrating position to be in because the university itself is not a law enforcement agency.

I didn’t expect the rough and tumble of the U.S. Senate race. I was not prepared for the despicable part of it. But I’m glad I did it, and it was a very close race. I’ve moved on. My daughter (Kathy Castor) is in Congress, and I will let her do the politicking in the family.

Sometimes, I worry about the discourse in politics. When I started out, when you were criticizing someone, you didn’t do it the way you do it now. The loss of civility is discouraging and disappointing.

The issues we concentrate on at the center are water, sanitation and sustainability. We work to develop programs and encourage faculty to do research in other areas of the world. We’re working now mostly in the Caribbean. As a consequence, we’ve become very involved in issues of water potability here at home. So it all fits together beautifully. I’m delighted to be here, and I’m happy. I’m not looking at anything else.

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