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Mom remembered on her daughter's graduation day

A mother and a daughter had planned to graduate together from SPC. But fate intervened.

By JOSE CARDENAS
Published July 26, 2007


CLEARWATER - Teresa Fillie was attending St. Petersburg College simultaneously with her daughter, so she had an idea.

"Wouldn't that be cool if we graduate together?"

"I don't think so," Melody Adams said a few years ago. "That's my day."

But Adams came around.

"Why not graduate with your inspiration, your mentor, the person you look up to?" Adams, 25, reflected this week. "She's my best friend."

The two vowed to "walk" together.

But Monday night, as Adams prepared to receive her diploma at Ruth Eckerd Hall, her mother wasn't by her side, in her own cap and gown.

Fillie died of cancer last year. She was 51.

"It was kind of a happy and sad thing," said Adams, who received a general education associate degree. "I knew she wasn't going to be there."

College president Carl Kuttler Jr. handed Adams a "degree in memoriam" for her mother.

He called them a "true college family."

A much-loved mom

Fillie was beloved at the college's Tarpon Springs campus.

Even while she was battling cancer, she made straight A's in pursuit of a degree in microcomputer software.

She had also been a hard-working administrative assistant in the communications, humanities and fine arts department for several years.

"If cancer had not taken her life, she would have been on that stage graduation night," said Joseph Smiley, an administrator who was also her academic advisor.

"She worked and was a student until she couldn't work or study anymore," Smiley said.

Adams plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in public administration.

For now, she is an administrative assistant in the math and science department on the Clearwater campus.

On her desk, she has two pictures of her mother.

In one, Fillie is on the beach, smiling under a blue sky with patches of white clouds.

In the other, Fillie is sick, lying in bed. Adams rests in her arms.

A battle with cancer

Fillie's first husband was a volunteer firefighter. He died in 1994 in the line of duty in Garner, N.C. He was 37.

Fillie moved her family to Tarpon Springs. Adams was 11. Her sister, Erin, was 13.

Fillie had married at 18, but she had always wanted to get a degree, Adams said.

Now remarried to Louis Fillie, she started taking classes along with her daughter.

Fillie was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer in November 2005.

Besides school and work, now there was chemotherapy at Moffitt Cancer Center.

"She finished her semester, and I withdrew," said Adams. "I couldn't take it."

Fillie kept working, too.

She found out that the cancer had spread to her brain. Paralyzed, she had to stay home.

Countless colleagues visited her.

Fillie e-mailed Smiley.

"I miss everyone at the college," she wrote. "I am hopeful that God will heal me so that I can continue with my life."

Smiley had the kids from his Sunday school class at Mount Olive AME Church in Clearwater send Fillie get-well cards.

"I asked the children to pray for her," said Smiley, 52. "Children can say that they love and care for someone in unusual ways."

Fillie e-mailed Smiley again.

"Thank you so much for the cards from the children," she wrote. "Nothing like the prayer of a child."

Fillie died at home on May 13, 2006.

"There were tears in my eyes when I read the way you spent your final moments together," Kuttler told Adams in front of the audience at the graduation.

"He handed me her diploma and told everybody why he was giving it to her," Adams said. "She was like 10 credits away from graduating."