Local Obituaries

Two colleges fought to get this educator — and both won

Maria “Toni” Bilbao at the Miami Dade College West Campus orientation for new students in Doral, Aug. 12, 2006.
Maria “Toni” Bilbao at the Miami Dade College West Campus orientation for new students in Doral, Aug. 12, 2006. Courtesy Robert Vos

Maria Antonia “Toni” Bilbao spent her lifetime in education. So much so, Bilbao impacted two of South Florida’s leading institutions of higher learning — Miami Dade College, where she ended her career in academia as executive director of its West Campus, and Florida International University as associate dean of student services.

Bilbao died on Jan. 18 following complications from heart and lung surgery. She was 66.

This lady was loved all over!

Maydel Santana, director of media relations for FIU

“Her legacy was all those students she touched and she touched thousands, literally,” said her husband, Robert Vos, a retired associate dean in the College of Education at FIU.

Born Jan. 20, 1950, in Havana, Bilbao was a Class of 1967 Coral Gables Senior High graduate. At Miami Dade College, she earned her associate in arts degree in pre-teaching. Before transferring to the University of Miami in 1969 for her bachelor’s in elementary and early childhood education and master’s in administration and supervision, she worked as a teaching assistant at Coconut Grove and Coral Way elementary schools. Among the students she tutored were the heirs of John F. Jelke, the inventor of margarine, said Vos.

Here are some of the most interesting facts from Bilbao’s life:

Miami Dade College and FIU both clamored for her services. Both won.

“Her last years at Miami Dade [from 2006 to 2010], she created the leadership at Miami Dade College’s West Campus. She did everything from selecting the carpets on the floor to the paint on the wall. And if you know [Eduardo] Padrón, he’s a hands-on person so there were some conflicts but they loved each other,” Vos said. She created the Art Gallery on Doral’s West Campus.

“Toni not only passionately advanced education in our community, but also the arts. She left an indelible mark on all the people and organizations she touched,” Padrón, president of Miami Dade College said of Bilbao, who listed collecting Cuban art and travel to museums — four days at the Louvre on her last trip to Paris — among her passions.

“[Padrón] had been trying to recruit her for many years and was disappointed when she went to FIU but FIU recruited her hard and fast,” Vos added.

At FIU, where Bilbao earned her doctorate in adult education and human resource development, she held many roles from 1984 to 2003, Bilbao held many roles from 1984 to 2003, including associate dean in the College of Education. She taught a required senior course for education students.

Toni Bilbao was a guiding light of optimism. She personified the can-do spirit that continues to positively infect FIU today. I feel a deep sense of loss.

FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg.

“Toni Bilbao was a guiding light of optimism. She personified the can-do spirit that continues to positively infect FIU today,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg.

Her students remembered her — sometimes to her benefit.

Bilbao taught first grade at West Dunbar Elementary in 1971, followed by teaching jobs at Earlington Heights, Lindsey Hopkins Education Center and assistant principal roles at A.L. Lewis Elementary and Everglades Elementary schools.

At Everglades, she started a Cub Scout troop so she bought uniforms for all of the participating kids. “Most of them were disadvantaged and she wasn’t going to ask the parents to spend that kind of money. She must have used a month’s salary for that,” Vos said. “That’s just the kind of person she was. She wanted to work with the students and she loved them all.”

And they loved her back. Many years after leaving Earlington Heights, she made an illegal turn while pulling out of a shopping center.

As she handed over her license and registration to the officer, “he stuck his head in the car and said, ‘Aren’t you Mrs. Bilbao? Didn’t you teach at Earlington?’ She said she remembered him. The officer, her husband said, told her, “‘Well, OK! You be safe now. ’Bye!’ She got off.”

In addition to her husband, Bilbao is survived by her daughter Katerina Woods, granddaughter Juliana Woods, and sister Maru Ramos. Services will be held at a date to be determined at Our Lady of Gaudalupe Catholic Church, 11691 NW 25th St., Doral.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen