Sail On, Power On

The WLP Fay Baynard scholarship helps single parents navigate life’s choppy waves

April 1, 2024

At a table tucked in the corner of a downtown St. Petersburg eatery on a recent afternoon, the day's special has nothing to do with the menu. Instead, a most special moment unfolds out of view of the bustling lunch crowd — one in which generosity is served and a remarkable story savored.

Johnnie Giffin, her gray hair tied playfully in a side ponytail with a glittery red headband, listens intently to Amy King, the young single mother seated across from her. An office manager at a local neurology practice, King is busy explaining how she juggles her day job, being a mom to her 8-year-old son and pursuing her education degree at USF. It doesn’t take long for tears to flow between the two, meeting in person for the first time. 

King is the inaugural recipient of a new USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy (WLP) scholarship Giffin established last year with a $26,000 gift to the USF Foundation. She later enhanced the scholarship with a $1 million legacy gift. This gift will assist WLP in its mission to make a difference in the lives of women throughout USF and in our communities.

"Many of our students are pursuing their education while balancing other life responsibilities, and we work to ensure they have access to the resources and support they need to be successful during their time at the University of South Florida,” said USF President Rhea Law. “Scholarships such as this one are powerful tools that help our students change the trajectories of their lives, and we are deeply grateful to Johnnie for her generosity.”

The scholarship honors Giffin’s late mother, Fay Baynard, who died in 2017. Rising from poverty in rural Mississippi, Baynard went on to create a hugely successful career as a St. Petersburg realtor, earn a degree in 1988 from the University of South Florida well into her work life, become a champion sailor and immerse herself in numerous local charities. 

Fay Baynard at her USF commencment in 1988
Fay Baynard at her USF commencment in 1988

“I think as a person you should always try to give back, and I’m doing this for USF and for my mom, and hopefully to help give students in need an opportunity to make their way in the world,” Giffin says. “My mother and I weren’t particularly close when I was younger. But over the last 30 years of her life, I know she loved me, and she knew I loved her. And I was there for her in her weakest moments until she passed.”

While she lived, Baynard charted a course that gradually made her a fixture in St. Petersburg’s society circles. It was a far cry from the tiny sharecropper home where she lived with her parents on property owned by her maternal grandparents in Barr, Mississippi, 50 miles south of Memphis. Later, when she married and gave birth to baby Johnnie, the family of three lived a meager lifestyle for eight years in nearby Ruleville, Mississippi. 

Then, out of the blue, came their break: a chance to move into a Treasure Island duplex across from the Gulf of Mexico owned by her paternal grandmother.

The dramatic change of locales opened up a world of new possibilities for young Baynard. In short order, she became a hairdresser, at first getting a job at a nursing home cutting hair on St. Pete Beach. She became involved in the statewide hair fashion association, won awards, and opened her own salon in the early 1970s. 

The marriage, however, didn’t last, and Johnnie lived with her father while her mother set out to leave her mark. They grew apart during that time, as Baynard moved into a new line of work, real estate, eventually selling units in high-end waterfront condominiums along Beach Drive and in upscale enclaves of the city. 

The woman, once quite poor, was named a Queen of Hearts at St. Petersburg’s annual charity ball for her volunteer work and community service. In time, she became a member of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, where she developed a passion for sailing and won numerous trophies and prizes. 

Though already financially secure in her own right, Baynard married wealthy real estate executive and estate manager L.W. “Larry” Baynard in 1986. He was part of a highly successful Pinellas County family with roots in law, real estate, banking and insurance. But in 1997, a heart attack cut his life short at age 73, and he left his estate to his wife. 

During this time, her daughter had followed a path into the hotel field, working at the iconic Don Cesar from 1977-1988, rising from working the switchboard, front desk and reservations to night audit and sales. During some of those early years, Giffin also raced down Gulf Boulevard to juggle a second job as a hostess at the Red Cavalier on Redington Beach. Those experiences eventually led her to Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, where she worked 32 years as a leisure travel director in sales until she was laid off due to the pandemic. 

Giffin remembers vividly how her mom powered through her heart ailments. “She had Afib (atrial fibrillation, a type of abnormal heartbeat), so she went in for an ablation and was supposed to be out in a week,” Giffin recalls. “But she wound up being there 60 days. After that she had to slow down a lot, which was so against her nature.”

Baynard lived for two more years, and her daughter cherished that extra time. “We were very dependent on each other because we really had nobody else,” she says. “I knew she was very successful, but I had no idea of her wealth until she passed. And she had always said to me that she wanted to bequeath a good portion of her estate to USF — specifically to help single mothers who are trying to better themselves with their education.”

Giffin penned these words in a 2017 Tampa Bay Times obituary: “My mother, your friend; she was commander and commodore all her life. She sailed, powered, raced and won. She was a fun loving, highly motivated, well educated, determined woman. Fay was respected, called upon, loved and now missed in so many waves. She wants us to sail on, power on and be our best. I love you, mama. I promise to make you proud.”

That vow spurred Giffin into action last year, when she reached out to USF to find out how to create a scholarship fund honoring her mother. Working with the USF Foundation, she funded the WLP Fay S. Baynard Class of 1988 Memorial Scholarship, supporting scholarships offered through Women in Leadership & Philanthropy. It is geared to full- or part-time undergraduate students in all majors and colleges on the St. Petersburg campus, and renewable up to eight semesters, with preference given to single parents or guardians of a minor who are employed at least part-time.

“We are truly grateful that Ms. Giffin has chosen to create a lasting tribute to her late mother in this way,” said USF Foundation CEO Jay Stroman. “Her endowed gift supports today’s deserving students while the legacy gift will continue granting opportunities for generations of scholars far into the future.”

This leads to the other guest at the restaurant table, Amy King. She had the first of her two children when she was 16, got kicked out of her house and then experienced homelessness for a time. Gradually, King found success in retail and telemarketing, before moving up the ladder to manage a medical office. 

When her older son graduated from Florida State University in 2022, she felt a powerful desire to earn her college degree. She enrolled at St. Petersburg College, then transferred to USF two years ago, handling the many expenses with little to no assistance.

Becoming the first Fay Baynard Memorial scholar is a boon, helping her focus on her studies without the financial burden she has carried.

“It’s such a blessing, and to hear your story and your mother’s story, it’s just so meaningful to me,” says King to Giffin, suddenly dissolving into tears.
“I don’t want people to feel bad for me. I don’t want excuses. I want to show that I can make it.”

She is doing just that with a helping hand from a woman who rose from humble Mississippi roots and a daughter who loved her deeply. Giffin’s generous gift to USF will perpetually support students, establishing the legacy her mother desired and granting King and all the students who follow the future they deserve.

The announcement of this gift comes one week before USF Giving Week, an annual event that brings alumni and friends together to raise funds for a wide variety of programs, including student scholarships.

637,872,759

Endowment Assets Through FY23

157,355,063

FY 2022-23 Total Commitment

37,500

Total Donors in FY23