'She was phenomenal': PBC educator who founded Brilliant Bus computer lab dies at 85

·5 min read
Estella Pyfrom
Estella Pyfrom

Estella Pyfrom, a daughter of farmworkers who grew up in Belle Glade and capped a career in education by coming out of retirement and bringing computer technology to the underserved, has died at age 85.

Pyfrom was heralded as a hero for launching Estella's Brilliant Bus, a custom school bus outfitted with 17 computer stations to bring internet connection to rural and under-connected communities in Palm Beach County.

The bus won her recognition at the White House during the Obama Administration, was featured in a 2015 Microsoft commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, and, to Pyfrom's thrill, captured the attention of and shared the stage with Oprah Winfrey, who remained in touch for years to come.

Pyfrom, who lived in suburban West Palm Beach, died Wednesday after a lengthy illness that had hospitalized her a handful of times in the last year, according to her family and friends.

"She was phenomenal," Pyfrom's friend Daphne Taylor told The Palm Beach Post on Saturday. "We will keep her legacy going."

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Estella's Brilliant Bus will continue, her family and friends said Saturday. The retired Palm Beach County educator died Wednesday at age 85.
Estella's Brilliant Bus will continue, her family and friends said Saturday. The retired Palm Beach County educator died Wednesday at age 85.

Pyfrom's family said they will keep Estella's Brilliant Bus running and connecting residents of all ages to vital technology.

Friends remember her as a fiercely passionate person who didn't abide nonsense.

"Estella is a pistol," Taylor said. "She will give you the world and do everything for you, but she has no problem putting you in correction."

Pyfrom launched her Brilliant Bus project in 2011 after retiring from a 50-year teaching career with the Palm Beach County School District. She invested $1 million of her retirement savings in the bus, which was on the road four days a week from Riviera Beach to Lake Worth Beach, to West Palm Beach to Pahokee.

She was 75 years old when Taylor said she came into her true passion — making sure kids were on the right side of the "digital divide." In 2015, Pyfrom estimated she'd reached around 60,000 children with her Brilliant Bus.

The bus gave them space to work on computers, hone their reading and vocabulary skills and learn their way around a keyboard.

Pyfrom's brilliant bus won recognition from far and wide

Pyfrom's work turned heads toward Palm Beach County and the gap in internet connectivity.

Shania Robertson of Lake Worth Beach works on one of the computers aboard Estella's Brilliant Bus in 2013.
Shania Robertson of Lake Worth Beach works on one of the computers aboard Estella's Brilliant Bus in 2013.

In 2013, she was recognized for her work during a White House ceremony. Pyfrom was designated as a "point of light" — part of a program that recognizes ideas and innovation by Americans focused on giving back.

Former President George H.W. Bush established the program in 1989 and named a “point of light” nearly every day of his White House tenure. His organization has since continued the recognition.

The honor, presented by former President Barack Obama, was something Pyfrom said she never imagined, certainly not when she was a 6-year-old girl picking beans and moving from farm to farm with her parents.

Her upbringing, she said, helped her relate to the children she serves now.

“I pretty much know and understand how it feels to be without,” said the career educator.

In 2015, Pyfrom was featured in a 60-second commercial that aired during the third quarter of the Super Bowl where the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks.

The spot was narrated by the rapper Common, who recited passages from speeches by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Microsoft paid for the commercial. “I had an idea. A bus that brings technology to the kids that need it most …” Pyfrom said in the commercial, which was shot in Belle Glade.

The commercial highlighted her work and contributions from a Microsoft grant program. A crew later updated her bus computer stations and supplied 28 new tablets for the program.

Family members of Brilliant Bus founder Estella Pyfrom, from left, gathered Sunday in suburban West Palm Beach to discuss her legacy: Son Juan Pyfrom, daughter Karen Pyfrom Abrams, husband Willie Pyfrom, and daughter Mia Pyfrom.
Family members of Brilliant Bus founder Estella Pyfrom, from left, gathered Sunday in suburban West Palm Beach to discuss her legacy: Son Juan Pyfrom, daughter Karen Pyfrom Abrams, husband Willie Pyfrom, and daughter Mia Pyfrom.

Though the bus and the publicity that followed gave Pyfrom a national profile, her children said Sunday that admirers should remember that her influence began in the county's schools, where she touched thousands.

"The bus? That wasn't even her second act, it was more like her third," said son Juan Pyfrom, the only one of her four children who didn't follow in their parents' footsteps and become a teacher. (Daughter Karen Pyfrom Abrams is principal at Pahokee Elementary. Mia Pyfrom is a teacher at Indian Ridge School.)

Estella Pyfrom taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and moved on to teaching home economics in middle and high school. She was a guidance counselor and a curriculum expert. Her husband, and Glades Central High school sweetheart Willie Pyfrom, also taught for decades, retired and then returned to teach some more, stepping down only as concerns about COVID-19 ramped up.

The pandemic, however, failed to sideline his wife or her bus, the family said. It was sometimes contracted by local governments or agencies to supply internet access needed for adults to register for various services.

Pyfrom hid her illness, leukemia, and later its severity, from her family, directing what energy she had to deploying the bus where it was needed, her husband said.

"She drove the bus and the bus drove her. That's what she needed to do," Juan Pyfrom said. It's unclear who will be behind the wheel going forward, he said. "The four of us (her children) don't have her energy. She was a force of nature."

But Juan Pyfrom said he expects the bus to hit the road again. Its technology is sustained through a partnership with Microsoft.

Pyfrom is survived by her husband Willie Pyfrom, their children, Gene Pyfrom, Juan Pyfrom, Karen Pyfrom Abrams and Mia Pyfrom, more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Pyfrom's family hopes to hold a celebration of her life Jan. 8. The details, including location, have not yet been determined.

kkokal@pbpost.com

@katikokal

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Estella Pyfrom, of computer center Brilliant Bus, dies at 85

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