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Stephanie Kadel Taras

Class of 1989

When Eckerd’s future unofficial college historian Stephanie Kadel Taras ’89 set foot on campus as a first-year student in 1985, she knew her grandfather William H. Kadel had been Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College’s founding president and that her parents, Dick and Karen Kadel, had both been in the Founding Freshman class. Beyond that, though, she had little knowledge of the College or its history.

“I really didn’t have much of an understanding of the legacy I was joining,” she says. “I was just going to college.”

Nearly four decades later, Stephanie has perhaps a better understanding of the legacy of Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd than anyone living. Her two books about the College—On Solid Rock and Swimming Lessons—tell the founding story of Eckerd and vignettes from its 60-year-history, respectively. She has honed her craft through her own business writing personal biographies on commission about the lives of everyday people—and, she says, it all started with the relationship she built with her Eckerd mentor.

Stephanie outside the London Study Centre in spring semester 1987.

Stephanie’s own Eckerd story started without ceremony. Her parents moved rather suddenly from her small West Virginia hometown to St. Petersburg just before her final year of high school. Reluctant to go through her senior year in a new place, she decided to enroll at Eckerd instead. She received her high school diploma after fulfilling her remaining requirements in summer school and began college at 16.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I’ve got to go to Eckerd because it’s the family thing.’ It was more that I was desperate to figure out my next move,” she says with a laugh.

Majoring in education, she was assigned to her mentor, Professor Kathy Watson ’69, who would eventually become associate dean for faculty development. Stephanie excelled in her coursework, spent a semester in London (hosted by Kathy and her husband, creative writing professor Sterling Watson ’69), and was in the inaugural class of Ford Scholars, but after student teaching in an elementary school classroom her junior year, she realized she did not want to be a teacher.

Stephanie on campus with her parents, founding Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College Class of 1964 members Dick and Karen Kadel, and her grandfather, founding President William H. Kadel

Upset and unsure what to do next, she went to Kathy for guidance. Stephanie recalls, “Kathy chuckled at me and said, ‘I’ve just been waiting for you to figure it out,’ which, I now realize, is a classic mentor response.”

Kathy suggested creating a major “concentration” in educational research with a focus on qualitative methods and writing. “Kathy is a superb writer,” says Stephanie, “and she made me a better writer with every editing mark on my papers.”

Stephanie’s senior thesis about the history of SunFlower School in Gulfport was based on interviews with parents, teachers, and students and led her to the field of educational foundations for a master’s degree at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University. Her doctoral dissertation focused on how teachers self-determine their own growth rather than being shaped by external requirements—essentially, how teachers push themselves to become great teachers.

All along, Stephanie didn’t have a career goal in mind. “I was just going through all of this credentialing without any idea what I was going to use it for or why I was even doing it. I think I got that permission from Eckerd—you can just study what you’re curious about without caring about where it’s going to take you.”

After getting her Ph.D., Stephanie moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she worked as a community researcher for local nonprofits. Her business, TimePieces Personal Biographies, was born from a desire to tell her own family’s story in a new way. Her Grandma Kadel used to say that life with husband Bill had turned out much differently than she’d expected when she married a small-town Presbyterian minister. Stephanie began thinking that while her grandfather’s story had been well-documented up to and after his death in 1990, no one had told their life story from her grandmother’s point of view.

She spent a weekend in Lake City, Florida, with Grandma Kadel, baking bread, making soup, and talking, all with a micro-cassette recorder running. Stephanie wrote the resulting book just as a family treasure, but when she showed it to a few coworkers, one asked if she would do something similar for their grandmother.

College student holds certificate alongside her mentor

Stephanie with her mentor, Professor (and, later, Associate Dean of Faculty Development) Kathy Watson ’69 (P ’98), after receiving certificates for involvement in the Honors and Ford Scholar programs

Stephanie Kadel Taras ’89 and Josh Annarelli ’14 gift her two books about Eckerd—On Solid Rock and Swimming Lessons—to President Annarelli at his Investiture Ceremony alongside Sue Slaugenhaupt ’85 (P ’20).

“At first, I was like, ‘No, it’s a family project, do it for your own grandmother,’” she says. “It just seemed weird to me. And then, of course, I thought about it and realized my professional skills gave me the ability to do something other families couldn’t do for themselves. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, that would be pretty cool.’”

That was her first paying client, and the business was born. As Stephanie was getting the business off the ground, Kathy had moved into the Upham Administration Building and was working with Eckerd’s fourth president, Donald R. Eastman III, who was interested in learning more about the history of the College he had recently joined. Kathy reached out to Stephanie about documenting the founding story by interviewing the earliest faculty, most of whom were still around.

“Kathy convinced President Eastman and me that I was the best person to do this important task,” says Stephanie. “Then she worked with me every step of the way, still my mentor and editor.”

What resulted was On Solid Rock: The Founding Vision of Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College, published in 2008 for the College’s 50th anniversary. A decade later, again in collaboration with Kathy, Stephanie  interviewed 17 alumni and faculty members spanning the College’s entire 60-year history for the volume that became Swimming Lessons. In her “unofficial historian” role, Stephanie presented the Eckerd story during Autumn Term to a decade of first-year students, giving them context for the legacy they were entering into—context she wishes she had when starting at Eckerd.

Through it all, Kathy has been a constant source of encouragement. Stephanie says her lifelong relationship with her college mentor is one of the things she associates most with the enduring impact of an Eckerd education.

“Kathy understood that I thrive when loved. She never stopped caring about me and believing in me, which allowed me to believe in myself. And now we’ve been friends more than 35 years.”