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Tinker celebrates 50-year heritage

The historic school on MacDill Air Force Base is primarily for the children of military personnel.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 18, 2002


MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE -- It was Saturday morning, but no one seemed to mind being at school.

Prekindergarteners gathered around a red-white-and-blue, crepe-paper cake and sang Happy Birthday, gleefully off-key.

Fifth-graders sported matching red polo shirts and sang the Tinker Elementary School song on a stage skirted in patriotic bunting.

A military honor guard carried the American flag, and a real major general spoke of the school's special place in history and the community.

It was a pretty big deal for an elementary school known to few outside South Tampa. But Tinker is hardly ordinary.

Saturday's event honored the 50th anniversary of the historic school located on MacDill Air Force Base and named for Gen. Clarence Tinker, the first U.S. general to die in World War II. His plane vanished at sea during the Battle of Midway.

Tinker, a member of the Osage Nation, played a key role in the building of the base and was the first to land a plane on its runways.

But the name that seemed to emerge most from the shadow of recent memory was that of the late Madeline Tinker McCormick, Clarence Tinker's widow, who died in 2000 at 104 and is widely acknowledged as the "Matron of MacDill."

"She always took a stand for what she believed," said assistant principal Felicia Williams. "She had spunk and spirit."

The school office pays tribute to the general and his wife. Tinker's electric globe, which reportedly accompanied him most places, is on display, as is his walking stick and a battered, slightly water-stained footlocker.

There are pictures of Madeline and "Tink" as newlyweds and of both in middle age. A photo of Madeline as an old woman in a floppy straw hat adorned with a flower is how most people remember her. She made visits to the school when she was 100.

That's how she's remembered by Matt Zewalk, who grew up on the same South Tampa street where Madeline lived, and who has made a long-term loan of many of the Tinker family artifacts to the school.

Zewalk met Madeline Tinker when he was a Cub Scout working on a history project. Over the years the old woman and the young boy with a love of history formed a deep friendship.

"I started to really know who she was as a person, and, as I got older, I grasped the history," said Zewalk, who is in the Air Force and stationed in Miami.

He recalled spending many afternoons talking on her porch. Sometimes Madeline played her grand piano for him, often the Air Force song, which she helped select in 1939 at the behest of Liberty Magazine. Occasionally she gave him things that she thought he would find interesting.

"We just talked, and every once in a while she would take me back in the house and show me something else. She was a living history book."

Clearly proud of the heritage, older students wearing name tags served as docents Saturday, offering visitors tours of the classrooms and the Tinker family memorabilia.

The school, which opened under the U.S. Department of Defense, has been part of the Hillsborough County School District since 1952. Its sits in a solid, military-base neighborhood that changes little over time, though the faces do.

The school is primarily for the children of MacDill personnel living on the base and within walking distance for most of the parents.

"They're all in this together; they all have something in common;" says principal Cheryl Tyo, of the 578 students who attend Tinker. "They're all accustomed to moving around."

After the ceremonies, students, teachers and MacDill military personnel, including Maj. Gen. William Hodges, gathered in the school cafeteria for lunch of baked ham with pineapple, potato salad and big, home-baked cookies.

Hodges spoke of the school's sense of community. Many of the children must endure long separations from their parents, so the school plays a significant role in their lives.

"Our population, our people, automatically identify with it," Hodges said. "It's our school. We have tons of people who volunteer for school programs even if they don't have kids in school here. It's a natural relationship."

Fannie Zamore and Roslyn "Roz" Ross, both retired Tinker teachers and both in their 80s, were among the parents, teachers and staff who came for the festivities.

Ross remembered planting three trees over the years on Arbor Day. She remembered the time the cook in the school cafeteria asked her for her recipe for oatmeal cookies and then baked them for the entire school.

Sadie Lane, who has been teaching fourth grade at Tinker for 29 years, is still struck by the "different" atmosphere at Tinker. "The children are very well behaved," Lane said "The parents are very cooperative. If you need something for the kids you're going to get it. Not all schools can say that."

She admires the sense of discipline among many military parents who pass the trait on to their children.

"I've taught the parents, the parent's kids and all the siblings," she said, as a young girl wandered over for hug. "And they all come back to see me."

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