Lillie McGarrah: Her life, legacy and passion lives on

BY JOYCE NANETTE JOHNSON, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG —Lillie McGarrah was a beloved, iconic figure who worked tirelessly for the betterment of the St. Petersburg community.  She was an educator, co-founder of Epsilon Beta Sigma of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. and an advocate for literacy.

In 1954, McGarrah graduated high school as the class salutatorian. She met her college sweetheart, Abraham, in 1954 on the campus of Tuskegee University in Alabama. They fell in love and he proposed, but she insisted on the marriage taking place in her hometown of Covington, Tenn., in the presence of her family.

After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, she and Abraham married and returned to his hometown in St. Petersburg. They made remained happily married.

A longtime educator, McGarrah retired from the Pinellas County School Board June 13, 1998, as the principal of Largo Central Elementary School.

McGarrahNever one to let grass grow under her feet, she was a mentor for the Doorway Program, member of Superintendents’ Minority Advisory Committee, Chairperson of the Advisory Board of the FCAT Bridging the Achievement Gap Program in Largo, Scholarship Chairperson at her church, First Baptist Institutional Church, and also served on the Board of Directors for the College Fund of Pinellas County, Inc.

She was the recipients of many awards and acknowledgements including the 2006 Footprint Award from the Epsilon Beta Sigma Chapter, a Sigma of the Year Award recipient and a Naomi Titus 2 Covenant Alliance Award recipient, just to name a few.

She passed October 26 of this year, leaving her husband of over 50 years to still cherish her memory. However, it is the spirit of McGarrah’s character and accomplishments that will continue to leave an indelible mark for years to come.

Gwen Brown, her niece in Covington, Tenn., fondly remembers that it was a special time when her aunt came home to visit. “I knew I was important to her and in my heart,” Brown shared. McGarrah became a mentor to her niece and a bond was held between them until her death.

She was always stylishly attired, but never put on airs. Brown explained that although McGarrah was a very sophisticated and educated woman, she was also loving and humble.

“She knew what she had achieved and what she had to go through. She thanked God.  She always walked straight, tall in high heels and strutted.  She always dressed up, even to go to the grocery store.  Wherever she went she wanted to look dignified and professional.”

Some of the pearls of wisdom McGarrah shared have helped shape Brown’s life, such as: “Love your family, love your kids, love your husband, but don’t ever forget about you,”  “Got to do you,” and “Don’t put you on the back burner, don’t forget about you.”

McGarrah was a co-foundering member of the Epsilon Beta Sigma of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. Through her efforts and the hard work of other founding sorority sisters including, Delceda Collins Walker and Teralyn Gilliam Hodge, the charter for St. Petersburg was granted in 1978.

Alma Purify, a soror at Tampa Chapter of Beta Kappa Sigma, vividly remembers McGarrah. “She was very vibrant,” Purify said.  “Anywhere she went her voice represented her; she was very expressive, had wisdom, talent and knowledge.”

Purify also recalls McGarrah being a no-nonsense type of person.  “She made the foundation of the St. Petersburg chapter strong, and they have something to build on.  I hope her labor does not go in vain.”

Lillie M. McGrarrah left her imprint on the world.  Her life lessons and words of wisdom will continue to inspire generations to come.  One of her favorite mottos was: “Do all you can while you can, for as long as you can.”

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