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Plaque and garden dedicated in memory of long-serving college employee

By Robbyn Hopewell
Published May 24, 2022
Categories: About Eckerd
Attendee snaps a photo of flowers

“Mary’s Garden”

Many of the people gathered outside Brown Hall on May 17 remembered Mary Oliphant’s outsized contribution to the community feeling they got whenever they passed through the building’s doors.

Oliphant spent 31 years as a housekeeper at Eckerd College and made a lifetime of positive impact before her passing in February 2021. Shortly after her death, work began to find a way to honor her on campus, immortalizing her positive spirit and motherly care in bronze.

Finally, after more than a year of preparation, a plaque in memory of “Ms. Mary” and a newly designated flower bed called “Mary’s Garden” were unveiled at a dedication service with Oliphant’s family and Eckerd faculty, staff, students and alumni in attendance. Director of Religious Life and Chaplain Doug McMahon opened the ceremony in prayer before welcoming several speakers to offer tribute to the life of a missing member of the Eckerd family.

“For so many of us, Mary’s loving smile and warm morning greeting started our day on campus. We will forever miss that morning greeting and her caring inquiries about our families—always referencing spouses and children by name,” said Jim Annarelli, vice president for student life and dean of students. “We will miss witnessing the love she had for Eckerd students—her ‘babies.’ Most of all, we will miss being with her each day at events or gatherings and in everyday encounters and conversations in and around Brown Hall.”

Mary wearing necklace
Staff gather outside

Tonya Womack ’05, Eckerd College risk manager and environmental health and safety manager, shared her memories as a former student and colleague. “If you know me, you know that my office is always a mess,” Womack said. “Whenever I had the time to clean up, Ms. Mary would walk in and say, ‘Whose office is this?’”

Womack first met Oliphant as an Eckerd student, and fondly remembers being welcomed to Oliphant’s home for a crab boil where she mingled with grandchildren. Womack cried as she remembered the profound effect Oliphant had on her feeling of belonging at Eckerd. “This place felt like home because of Ms. Mary,” Womack explained.

Plaque inscribed with dedication to Mary Oliphant

Gigi Glen, secretary of New Faith Free Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, said that Oliphant was a founding member of the 32-year-old congregation, and her welcoming spirit, dedication to youth and motherly care made New Faith a home to others. Glen and Oliphant sold fish dinners to provide monetary gifts to high school graduates from the church, and in Oliphant’s honor, the church will award its first college scholarships in June. “She was such a good person, and we miss her so much,” Glen said.

Fellow housekeeper and evangelist Daisy Hopewell Bryan offered a rousing sermon comparing Oliphant to the biblical Good Samaritan in her dedication to never leave anyone behind and do for others all that she could.

“As my son and I would ride to work with her in the morning, I would ask her about retirement, and she would not listen to one word …,” Bryan recalled. “She just said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ But she never did. Because she loved Eckerd College and took pride in the work that she [did] here.”

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