In memory of Virginia Rivers
By Gladys Varga
“I’ll never forget my first public performance of storytelling at the age of eight,” Virginia Rivers began in an article for the March 1995 Storytelling Magazine. Born on July 23, 1935 and raised in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, the young storyteller with “weak knees and a pounding heart” became synonymous with storytelling in her adult life. A visionary and woman of extreme generosity, Virginia was a graduate of the University of Tampa and Florida State University. Her career included teaching 1st grade, hosting an 8 year run of live daily programs for preschoolers on Tampa’s WEDU-TV educational television, serving as a children’s librarian for the Tampa Public Library, co-founding the Suncoast Puppet Guild and the Tampa Bay Storytellers Guild, receiving Tampa Hispanic Woman of the Year, and conceiving and implementing community events for the City of Tampa, such as International Festival, Halloween FunFest, Dreamers Against Drugs, and Santafest. During her 30 years as Artistic Director of Creative Arts Theater for the City of Tampa Recreation Department, Creative Arts Theater has received numerous national and regional awards and currently serves approximately a quarter of a million people annually. Most recently, Virginia received the Annette Bruce Lifetime Achievement Award from FSA.
“We are in the business of changing lives, sometimes one person at a time.”
Community outreach was always one of Virginia’s focuses. During her employment as a children’s librarian, Virginia not only produced puppet shows for branch libraries, she also began a program of “puppet boxes”, which included puppets, stories, taped scripts, and props, that traveled to libraries throughout the state of Florida. Ever conscious of young people and their needs, Virginia was instrumental in establishing a Young Adult area in the library and in organizing outdoor youth rock concerts, which showcased local youth bands. Beginning in 1976, Virginia co-produced a show for preteens and young children called “Virginia’s Place” on WFLA, Tampa’s News Channel 8.
But one of the major achievements of this accomplished storyteller and puppeteer was the fostering of literally hundreds of youth storytellers through the Tampa-Hillsborough County Storytelling Festival. The Storytelling Contest was begun as a program in the City of Tampa Recreation Department in the late 1940’s. When Virginia’s Creative Programming Department was switched from the Tampa Library System to the Recreation Department, she was asked to take over the Storytelling Contest. In 1980, with the help of many others, Virginia changed the Contest to a Storytelling Festival, where every youth who learned a story and met Festival Quality criteria for telling a story was a “winner” and was invited to tell at the culminating Festival. This year, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Storytelling Festival celebrated its 23rd year, the longest continually running storytelling program in the nation that features youth tellers as the stars of the Festival. Some years, as many as 800 youth storytellers have told at this Festival. During those years, Virginia mentored both adult and youth storytellers, lending her time and expertise to producing a quality community event and helping to create a new generation of storytellers. One of these storytellers has been an incredible gift to our storytelling community–Virginia’s daughter Kim Rivers.
During the last few years of her life, Virginia conceived and worked tirelessly for yet another dream–a creative arts complex, including a workshop, audio studio, storage for Creative Arts Theater’s 150+ puppet shows, rehearsal space, and performing arts theater in order to offer more free community access to the performing arts, especially for children. Preliminary plans are under way by the City of Tampa for such a complex.
Before her death on May 3, 2003, Virginia told her son Tim Rivers that “her life had been uplifted by children”. Virginia and her work, in turn, have uplifted us. The storytelling and performing arts worlds have lost a dear friend with Virginia’s passing. But her spirit lives on in the many artists of all ages that she has encouraged and mentored. If you wish to help Virginia’s dream of a new performing arts complex come true, contributions may be made out to “Virginia Rivers Memorial Fund” and mailed to P. O. Box 747, Odessa, FL 33556.
“We are in the business of changing lives, sometimes one person at a time,” Virginia often told those of us who worked with her. Indeed, our lives have been changed because of Virginia.