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Nature puts on show for groundbreaking

After a new assembly hall is ceremonially launched at Nature's Classroom, so is a barred owl.

By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


TAMPA -- An owl stole the show from Gordon Gillette on Saturday, but Gillette didn't mind.

Gillette had shovel honors at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the TECO Energy Center for Environmental Studies, which is to be an assembly hall and focal point within a year at Nature's Classroom, the Hillsborough County School District's nature-education park. Gillette is chief financial officer at TECO, which contributed $500,000.

Soon after Gillette and several educational leaders posed for photos with the gold-painted shovel, the crowd of guests learned that a rehabilitated barred owl was to be released.

Some 50 people promptly saw Nature's Classroom at its best.

They trekked down a boardwalk into a dense cypress swamp, dried by years of intermittent drought. They saw a pet carrier holding the owl, which had been nurtured to health after becoming bruised and weakened in a tangle of vines.

Zookeeper Mary Rich perched the carrier on a boardwalk railing, and the owl began flapping and leaping inside. When she opened the door, the owl flew directly up to an ash limb some 40 feet away. Then it stared regally for several minutes at the awe-struck humans.

"She sees all these people, and she's kind of questioning, "Am I really free now?' " said Bill Munsey, who has taught at Nature's Classroom for 30 years.

The bird lingered as the crowd broke up, then flew into the swamp.

It was a fitting exclamation point for an afternoon on which the Hillsborough Education Foundation celebrated a campaign for corporate donations and launched its quest to raise the final $1-million from individuals. Over three years, the foundation has acquired $3.6-million toward:

the TECO center, which will seat 350 students;

a welcome center/office building;

a new interpretative center, where Nature's Classroom students can touch live animals and see preserved specimens of exotic ones;

a $1-million endowment to maintain those facilities; and

$1-million for college scholarships to needy students as part of the statewide "Take Stock in Children" program.

Nature's Classroom is centered in 365 acres on the Hillsborough River off Morris Bridge Road. Each week, buses bring sixth-graders to the oak-shaded grounds for three days of environmental learning. More than 300,000 students have passed through.

The scholarship program is linked to Nature's Classroom chiefly through their shared funding source.

On Saturday, many scholarship recipients returned to Nature's Classroom.

Matthew Carman, now a medical student at the University of South Florida, said his scholarship made him a better student.

"It allows you to focus more on the academic side of what you have to do," he said.

Narecia Fowler, a ninth-grader at Chamberlain High School, said the pledge of a two-year scholarship intensified her interest in her studies. She wants to become a doctor.

"I think she works a little harder now to make sure she gets B's and A's," said Narecia's mother, Johnnie Fowler.

"It tuned her up real well," said Narecia's father, Ken Fowler.

-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

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