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    Deborah Vincent, housing leader, dies at 43

    The 43-year-old longtime housing authority director is remembered for her remarkable energy and a commitment to helping others.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2001

    Howard Groth worked with Deborah Vincent, the longtime leader of the Clearwater Public Housing Authority, for 16 years, but in all that time, he never could figure her out.

    "I never was able to understand how she did all the things she did," he said Friday.

    Vincent, 43, a St. Petersburg native, died Thursday (July 26, 2001) after learning last month that she had leukemia.

    In her 16 years as executive director, Vincent prompted what amounted to a revolution at the authority, bringing it from disarray to a highly respected and innovative agency. She helped local programs to assist the homeless and the mentally ill. She led the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and Leadership Pinellas and other civic organizations.

    She left Clearwater in 1997 to work as a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, then became deputy housing commissioner for the city of Baltimore.

    Pinellas community leaders said Friday that Vincent coupled remarkable organizational and leadership skills with a deep commitment to helping others.

    Vincent's husband, Russ Wilburn, said it's that commitment that people should remember.

    "She had a strong sense of helping people," he said. "She felt it was something everyone should do."

    Local leaders praised her ability to lead effectively but quietly and to bring people together, even on difficult issues.

    "I'm going to be 86 next week," said Groth, former authority board chairman. "In all my career, I don't think I have ever run into an executive director or administrator or CEO who has done as good a job as Deborah. And that includes 26 years in the Navy."

    Vincent took over leadership of the housing authority in 1981 after the previous director was accused of stealing from the agency.

    Vincent worked to make public housing more orderly, but also more enjoyable. She kicked out trouble-making tenants and brought police substations to Clearwater's public housing units. She brought in drug treatment and recreational programs, and began a program to help families become self-sufficient that won national awards.

    Under her leadership, the authority also bought more expensive apartment complexes to rent to low-income people who made too much money for traditional subsidized housing.

    Through all those changes, Vincent's spirit never wavered, said Isay Gulley, executive director of Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services.

    "She wasn't afraid of a challenge," she said. "I totally admire her courage."

    Gulley said Vincent often referred clients to her agency, never allowing turf tensions to get in the way of helping clients, and had a knack for spotting and developing her employees' talents.

    Police Chief Sid Klein, who worked closely with Vincent both with the housing authority and with programs for the homeless, said Vincent was a "dynamo."

    "Anything that could help Clearwater, she was there, with a big smile and a soft voice and an ability to get a lot of things done."

    Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said that Vincent, "a real star in the county," transformed the way public housing is viewed here.

    "At one time, it was one of those things that was nobody's business," Harris said. "She made it everybody's business."

    Funeral arrangements were incomplete Friday. She is survived by her husband; her stepfather, Rudy Wiggins of Pinellas Park; a brother, Walter Vincent of Lake City; and three sisters, Jackie Cummins of Largo, Victoria Giesegh of Pinellas Park, and Sherry Higgins of Lake City.

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