With 156 students enrolled, empty offices and ongoing construction, Maria ‘Toni’ Bilbao paved the way for West Campus since its opening in 2006.
From furnishing the building and covering its walls with artwork to hiring staff and touching the hearts of students and colleagues, the lifelong educator left an indelible mark as the first executive director of the then outreach center, MDC West.
At 66, Bilbao died due to heart and lung surgery complications at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami on Jan. 18.
“[She was] an incredible human being. She was so service oriented and outgoing and funny and light and lively,” said Ana Demahy, the current executive director at West Campus and former colleague of Bilbao. “Yet she was so dedicated and so committed.”
Born in Havana on Jan. 20, 1950, Bilbao moved to Miami with her family at the age of 10.
A graduate of Coral Gables Senior High in 1967, she earned an associate in arts degree in pre-teaching from Kendall Campus. Bilbao transferred to the University of Miami and earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary and early childhood education in 1971 and a master’s in administration in supervision in 1973, while working as a teaching assistant for Coconut Grove and Coral Way elementary schools.
Bilbao’s career in academia started at Florida International University in 1984, where she served for nearly 20 years. Her most notable role was as associate dean in the College of Education. It was from that institution that she obtained a doctorate in adult education and human resource development.
In 2003, she was recruited by Miami Dade College President Eduardo J. Padrón, and for three years served as the College’s associate provost for student services.
“She went to Miami Dade because Dr. Padrón just wouldn’t leave her alone,” said Robert Vos, her husband of nearly 10 years and a retired dean from the College of Education at FIU. “The two of them loved each other. They always respected each other.”
When the College opened MDC West in Doral as an outreach center in 2006, she was appointed as executive director. Her portrait still hangs on the wall of the campus’ executive suite along with Roger Ramsammy’s, the current president of the now accredited West Campus.
Her administrative post did not stop her from interacting with students every time she had a chance. According to DeMahy, when Bilbao stepped in her office with a student the administrative team laughed.
“She’d walk in with a student and she’d say ‘Look, look, I just met this student and she’s so smart… What opportunities could we present?’” DeMahy said. “She was always looking out for the best interest of students.”
One of the academic advisers at West, Rafael Vadía, usually referred to her as “Mother Theresa” because of her altruistic ways.
Vadía remembers a student who refused to take the last level of an English class after missing two points on a test.
“You’re going to have to go to another campus because we cannot do anything about it,” he told the student. “We’re very strict.”
As Vadía walked out of his office half an hour later, he noticed Bilbao consoling the student.
“Rafael are you aware that he was only two points away?” she told him. Before he could react, the student was making the line for advisement again.
Under her tenure as executive director, the City of Doral gave its first endowment for scholarships to the College.
“She had her way, that’s for sure, of convincing people to do what she wanted to do,” Vos said.
The extent of her kindness went beyond students. She treated staff like family.
Patricia Lively, her former FIU colleague and academic adviser at West Campus, remembers Bilbao’s reaction to one of the toughest times of her life. Their daughters were pregnant at the same time and Lively’s had a miscarriage.
“When I came back she was the first one to hug me and cry and was apologizing because her daughter was pregnant,” Lively said. “My daughter did eventually get pregnant [again]…Every time I saw her after that, she would ask me ‘How’s the baby?’”
Her reach was much bigger than her petite, 5-foot tall frame. Bilbao carried herself with elegance and grace and her kind gestures accented her hazel-colored eyes. Her impeccable appearance matched the luxurious marble floors and modern design of West Campus.
Bilbao’s goal was to turn West into an artistic niche. From piano concerts to opera nights, she aimed for students to experience life through the arts, according to DeMahy.
From 2007 to 2012 she served on the Cultural Affairs Advisory Board at Doral, which allowed her to seamlessly merge the City’s cultural events with the College’s.
“I think she saw the potential of both the city and MDC,” said Juan Carlos Bermudez, the mayor of Doral. “Her legacy would be one of a person, not only a great professional, but also a great citizen who gave back to her community in many different ways.”
Ever since its inauguration, the art gallery she opened at the campus has displayed the work of both world renowned and local artists. An amateur painter, Bilbao had many connections in the art world. She invited many of them to the campus, and got a bevy of donations that today grace the walls of West Campus.
“She left a legacy of art that will be here forever for students to enjoy,” DeMahy said.
Bilbao also made West Campus like her home.
Because of her, everyone on campus had a lid to cover their cafecito so it wouldn’t spill. As a result, the furniture and carpets remain in pristine condition.
At her retirement celebration in 2010, guests toasted with cafecito, each cup with a lid on it. And to this day, DeMahy said, administrators walk around asking: ‘Tiene la tapita?’ —Spanish for ‘Does it have a lid?’
An avid traveler, she spent her retirement touring the world with her husband. They visited many destinations, from the Netherlands to Thailand.
“She was always interested in seeing different cultures, different people. She was a people person and we enjoyed going and meeting people,” Vos said. “There’s a lot of things to see and do, and only so much time actually.”
Aside from her husband, Bilbao is survived by her daughter Katerina Woods, granddaughter Juliana Woods and sister Maru Ramos.
A service will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 11691 N.W. 25th St. in Doral on Feb. 17 at 10 a.m.