By Richard Burnett
Years ago, Marlene O’Toole strode purposefully through the hallway of Beacon College, holding a dozen folders, amicably greeting co-workers, finally wheeling into an office and grabbing a seat at her desk. In her wake, a student followed, hanging on her every word and action.
“This is my intern,” O’Toole explained. “He’s a little quiet and doesn’t say much, but he’s learning and figuring things out. He’ll be okay.”
That was vintage Marlene O’Toole — engaging, mentoring, helping students with learning and attention issues be confident, experience learning and discover themselves, colleagues say. When she joined Beacon in 2017, she didn’t know the move would provide a capstone for her passion for helping to elevate the social mobility of young people. This was to be the final act of a considerable professional life, after stints as a corporate executive, a legislator and Chair of the House Education Committee, and director of Take Stock in Children in Florida, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to at-risk children.
The award-winning former Florida lawmaker, education advocate, nonprofit leader, and former IBM manager died Tuesday from heart disease. O’Toole was 78 years old. She is survived by her husband Edward O’Toole Sr. of The Villages, Florida, and five adult children.
O’Toole also left behind a multitude of friends, colleagues, and associates, past and present, who witnessed her quiet, but powerful touch in everything from educational opportunity and economic development to the dramatic growth of The Villages.
“Among the many organizations and communities that prospered through the abiding influence of Marlene O’Toole, the people of Beacon College are profoundly saddened by her passing,” said Dr. George Hagerty, Beacon president. “We not only have lost a wonderful and giving colleague but on a very personal level, a dear and trusted friend to many.”
O’Toole came to Beacon in the summer of 2017 as a special projects manager, after retiring from her corporate and political careers. In March 2018, she stepped into a full-time role as director of the college’s innovation and outreach center, which coordinated a cluster of programs aimed at equipping and preparing neurodiverse students for the workplace. Later, she held several other positions in career development and job placement, eventually becoming Beacon’s director of community relations.
Deeply committed to the community and devoted to the students, O’Toole was highly respected throughout the college and everyone will miss her energy, wisdom, sense of humor, and friendship, said Rich Killion, vice president for advancement and strategy.
“She understood what education and workplace opportunity could do for young people, and how it could serve as a path for fulfilling their dreams,” he said. “She knew this was particularly important for students with learning and attention issues, which is why she worked tirelessly on our students’ behalf, whether that involved helping get them an internship, a job, or a connection to someone in the community.”
O’Toole’s influence in the community — fueled by her years in the state legislature — made her particularly effective in finding opportunities for students in business and industry. From 2008 to 2016, as a GOP lawmaker representing Sumter County and parts of Lake and Marion, she received many honors, including Legislator of the Year from the Associated Industries of Florida’s IT Council, Distinguished Advocate from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Public Service Award from the Florida Network of Children’s Advocacy.
She was also credited with playing one of the key roles in the early growth of The Villages, establishing a legislative framework and foundation for the business and residential expansion of the burgeoning retirement community. Recently, the impact of her decades-long commitment to economic opportunity was reflected in the region’s burgeoning 563-acre and 7 million-square-foot industrial complex that bears the name “Rep. Marlene O’Toole Industrial Park.”
Former state senator Alan Hays worked with O’Toole on many issues when they both served in the legislature. Now Lake County’s supervisor of elections, Hays served in the Florida Senate and House representing Lake during O’Toole’s career.
“She had a quiet strength that was amazing to see, but anyone who would mistake her quietness for weakness would be in for a real awakening if they tried to challenge her,” he said. “She researched everything and always knew what she was talking about. She was always professional, compassionate, and had a real heart for children, to improve the educational status of our population.”
O’Toole’s uncommon fair mindedness also helped her win over people, Hays added. She knew the art of compromise, when to negotiate, how to respect others, still take a stand on principle and get things done.
“Despite all the serious issues, she was also someone who loved to laugh, had a great sense of humor, and loved to play practical jokes on folks,” he added. “She was so generous and always gave her time to so many great causes. I would say I was privileged to call her my friend.”