From two loyal Gators, a special gift to UF: the house where some of their happiest memories took place. “Education has done a lot for all of us,” says John Habgood. “We thought that’s where we should put some of our money, to pay it forward.”
It all started with a house.
A raised bungalow along the Santa Fe River, in Fort White, where St. Petersburg residents John Habgood (BSF ’66, MBA ’72) and Dr. Mary Kay Habgood (BSN ’67, MNSF ’71) would escape on the weekends with their two young sons to “enjoy nature and the great outdoors,” as John says.
Over the years, the Gator couple’s “little stilt house,” as they call it, became a hub for family and friends. There were weekend sleepovers for their sons’ soccer teammates – “I think our record is having 18 little boys all lined up in sleeping bags on the porch,” says Mary Kay – lazy afternoons jumping off the big swing over the river; and when the boys went off to college (UF, naturally), the house hosted plenty of Game Day celebrations for Gator football and basketball.
When their sons married and had children of their own, the house witnessed a new generation of Habgoods learning to fish, tube and waterski on the waters of the Santa Fe.
“That house holds a lot of memories,” says John, a retired fiscal administrator for the city of St. Pete.
John and I have very been gifted in our lives, with wonderful experiences at UF and wonderful friends. It’s incumbent on us to share that with people in the future because we couldn’t have gotten through it ourselves without a few helping hands along the way.
— Dr. Mary Kay Habgood (BSN ’67, MNSF ’71) —
So, in 2018 when the Habgoods decided they wanted to help more students get a great UF education, they put the little stilt house to one last use: as a gift to the University of Florida Foundation.
Their donation funds scholarships for undergraduates at the UF College of Nursing (CON), where Mary Kay was mentored in the 1970s by CON’s founding dean, Dorothy Smith. Smith stressed the importance of graduates helping the next generation of Gators, a principle that resonates with both Habgoods.
Earlier, the couple had established the John F. and Dr. Mary Kay Habgood Scholarship/Fellowship Fund, which supports both CON undergraduates and MBA students at the Warrington College of Business, John’s alma mater. Their subsequent real estate gift is earmarked especially for nursing scholarships since CON is in extra need of donor support, says John.
“We’re just carrying out Dean Smith’s original message of making things better for the students who come after us,” says Mary Kay. “John and I have very been gifted in our lives, with wonderful experiences at UF and wonderful friends.
“It’s incumbent on us to share that with future students because we couldn’t have gotten through college ourselves without a few helping hands along the way.”
First in their families
The Habgoods’ story begins in St. Petersburg, where both John and Mary Kay (Struthers) were born, three years apart, to families with roots in the area.
Mary Kay’s mother was born in Ohio and brought to Florida in 1912 when she was just three years old to recover from whooping cough. Originally from Montreal, Mary Kay’s father moved to the Sunshine Coast in 1927 and was a master electrician.
Similarly, John’s parents immigrated to St. Pete in the 1920s, his mother from Kentucky, his father, from the London suburb of Wimbledon. The senior Habgood only completed the eighth grade in England, but he did a lot with that schooling, says John, rising to become the head of the St. Petersburg Times photo engraving department and then founding his own company, the Southern Engraving Co.
During his leisure time, Habgood Sr. liked to operate his ham radio and go camping with his children, an activity that would stick with John.
Growing up in St. Pete in the ‘40s and ‘50s, John and Mary Kay had a lot in common – both were good students, hard-working, with keen senses of humor – but with John being three years older, their paths only crossed at the end of his senior year. It would take an unprecedented event for the two teens to grow closer: Becoming the first in their families to attend college.
“It was a foreign event in my family,” John laughs. “We were very blue collar. When I went off to the University of Florida [in 1961], everyone didn’t know what to expect.”
John’s love of the outdoors drew him to the School of Forestry, which was expanding its research efforts and faculty hires in the 1960s. Mary Kay arrived on campus in 1964 and eventually settled on nursing as her field of study. The College of Nursing was less than a decade old at the time, but under the leadership of Dean Smith, it was becoming a powerhouse of nursing education. It would play a decisive role in Mary Kay’s professional life, too.
Strolling together on campus under moss-draped live oaks, John and Mary Kay discovered their viewpoints and interests were similar and they soon began dating; by Christmas 1965, they were engaged. A snapshot taken at a friend’s wedding during that period shows the handsome young couple in formalwear, a gentle smile on Mary Kay’s lips, John’s hand resting protectively on her shoulder. It is not their wedding portrait – they would tie the knot in December 1966, right after John’s graduation – but the couple’s visible ease and confidence forecast their strength as a married couple.
John’s goal after graduation was to embark on a career in forestry. But Uncle Sam had other plans.
From Vietnam to graduate school
The monkey wrench was the Vietnam War. Students could defer their service while in college, but once they had their degree in hand, the draft was still waiting, as John and hundreds of other Gators found out in the 1960s and early ‘70s.
John spent four years in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of captain and stationed at airbases in Udorn, Da Nang, Panama City and Sumter, South Carolina. And at his side for three of those four years was Mary Kay, now his wife and a proud holder of a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“Mary Kay traveled all over the place with me,” he says. “It was an interesting experience.”
“I think we moved ten times when we were in the Air Force,” adds Mary Kay, who worked as a nurse at the Palms of Pasadena hospital, in St. Pete, while John was in Southeast Asia and also taught public health nursing at the University of South Carolina when John was at Shaw Air Force Base.
When the U.S. military began offering an early out to officers who went to graduate school, John jumped at the chance, and the couple traded the jungle for The Swamp, with John enrolling in UF’s MBA program.
“Our life plan was that I worked the night shift [at Shands] so we could have an income while he went to school,” says Mary Kay.
But when she dropped by the Dean’s Office at CON to say hello, a secretary asked if she had thought about getting a paid traineeship and earning a master’s in nursing.
The novel idea appealed to Mary Kay, who went on to earn a master’s in medical surgical nursing and completed a nursing residency under the tutelage of Dean Smith herself.
“That was absolutely the unique educational experience of my life,” says Mary Kay, whose traineeship let her shadow Dean Smith as she managed patients and made administrative decisions, and teach alongside her.
And it paid more than the $200 a month John received through the G.I. Bill. “The traineeship ended up helping to pay for my education as well as hers,” laughs John.
The art of taking turns
By then, the couple had perfected the supportive partnership style that would see them through more half a century of marriage. Each spouse alternated pursing their career goals to give the other room to grow.
It was now John’s turn to make his professional mark. In May 1972, the Habgoods returned to St. Petersburg, where John embarked on what would become a 26-year-long career at City Hall, rising through the ranks to become “the city’s financial guru,” as the St. Petersburg Times put it. John’s achievements include assisting in the renovation of the Vinoy Park Hotel (now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places), securing financing for Tropicana Field and helping to land the Salvador Dali Museum, now the area’s biggest cultural attraction. He also served as president of the First Florida Governmental Finance commission.
“The business background and financing training I got at UF was key to the economic development projects I did for the city of St. Pete,” says John.
During that time, the couple gave birth to two sons, Kenneth (BSEN ’97, MS 00), in 1973, and Richard (BABA ’98), in 1976. The stilt house along the Santa Fe River became an important getaway, and in between hosting sleepovers and cheering her sons’ sports teams, Mary Kay earned a doctorate in measurement and research from the University of South Florida. She also worked for nine years as a program evaluator for the Manatee County School Board and directed its testing program.
John’s retirement in 1998 meant Mary Kay now had the green light to pursue bigger dreams.
“He turned to me and said, ‘What would you like to do?’” remembers Mary Kay. “And I said, ‘Well, the most fun I ever had was that opportunity teaching with Dean Smith. I would like to do that again because those [UF students]are just the smartest kids.’”
In 1999, Mary Kay – now Dr. Habgood — returned to her alma mater as a visiting professor to teach undergraduate medical and surgical nursing for a few years. In 2000, she was appointed to the Florida Board of Nursing to oversee the licensing and certification of all nurses in the states and developed policy related to nursing practice. Among her professional achievements are serving as a fellow of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Institute of Regulatory Excellence, the research liaison for the Florida Center for Nursing, a member of the examination committee for the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and an active member of the American Nurses Association.
In 2017, the Habgoods – UF Alumni Association Life Members – reunited with their 1960s classmates to participate in the Grand Guard 50th anniversary reunion. In 2019, the College of Nursing honored May Kay with the Lead Award, in recognition of the nearly 40 years of support that she and John have given to undergraduate scholarships and to the Dorothy Smith Endowed Chair. She is now an Emeritus Professor at UF.
Give and take, patience and humor
Now both retired and enjoying the beautiful views from their home in Glenville, North Carolina, the Habgoods have time to reflect on how far their families have come since their forefathers settled in St. Petersburg almost 100 years ago.
John notes that their older son Kenneth, after earning two degrees from UF, moved to Knoxville to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee in 2011. Following his UF bachelor’s degree, Richard went on to receive a master’s degree in information technology from the University of Oregon and an MBA from Rollins College. “We went from my father having an eighth-grade education to his grandsons having multiple advanced degrees,” he says proudly. “Education has done a lot for all of us,” he adds. “We thought, ‘that’s where we should put some money to pay it forward.’”
The Habgoods’ generosity is one of the many fruits of their marriage, now in its 54th year. When pressed, they say the secrets to a long, happy partnership are a willingness to give and take, and patience.
“And, I would add, a sense of humor,” says Mary Kay. “That is really important.”
Which brings us back to the little stilt house. Back in the mid-‘80s, the couple built a bathroom on the ground level so kids wouldn’t track mud up to the first-floor landing.
All that was left to install was the wallpaper. Mary Kay had in mind something pretty, like little pink rosebuds, she says.
But when she came back from shopping one morning, her son Kenneth told her to get ready for a surprise.
She opened the bathroom door to find the walls freshly papered in orange and blue rectangles displaying “little Gators playing every kind of sport you can image,” laughs Mary Kay.
Like the good sport and avid Gator she is, Mary Kay embraced her husband’s choice. Now the river property is in someone else’s hands.
“I’m kind of curious what the new owners did with all those Gators,” John wonders.