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Detention officer's compassion praised

Earl Leroy Presley Sr. was a ''bright star'' fueled largely by concern for kids, say friends and family.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- They packed Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Friday.

Friends, relatives and co-workers came to honor a man whose method was to work quietly in the background while touching scores of lives, said those who recalled Earl Leroy Presley Sr.

Mr. Presley, nicknamed "Chewing Gum" or "Chew" from his days as a baseball player at Gibbs High School, died of cancer Oct. 19. He was 59 and lived at Lynn Lake Apartments.

A nine-year officer at Pinellas County's Juvenile Detention Center, Mr. Presley also was a youth counselor for the St. Petersburg YMCA's before- and after-school program at Bay Point Elementary School.

"Whenever he would come in the door, all the kids would run up to him," said Tracy Nero, the program's supervisor.

"We knew he was sick, but he would always come in with a smile on his face," Nero said. She said the youngsters especially liked the cartoon characters Mr. Presley drew for them.

Mr. Presley battled cancer for three years, said Shirley Presley, his wife. He had dropped to 130 or 140 pounds from what had been his typical weight of 180.

"I was concerned about it," said Nero, looking back on the times Mr. Presley worked at the Y program. "I was always wanting to feed him. But he said he couldn't eat."

Mr. Presley never complained during his illness, Shirley Presley said.

Mr. Presley was always one to stick up for his friends, said Jules Mobley. Mobley and Mr. Presley had been best friends since 1958, when both were growing up in St. Petersburg.

Mobley recalled an episode when the two were teenagers. Another boy was trying to push Mobley around.

"Chew pulled me aside and said, 'Ju-baby, that guy can't handle you. He's just a bully.' " The encouraging words helped Mobley stand up to his tormentor, he said.

"He was like a bright star in my life," Mobley said of Mr. Presley. "When he was around, I felt more secure. You just had the feeling if you needed somebody, he was there."

He paid particular attention to children. Mrs. Presley said he would sometimes see youngsters on the streets whom he had met at the detention center. Some would call out to him, she said.

Sometimes he'd give them money. "He'd say, 'If someone would love them, and show them the way, maybe it would deter them from breaking the law,' " Mrs. Presley said.

Karen Galinowski, the vice president and executive director of the YMCA, said Mr. Presley always saw the potential, rather than the negative, in youngsters.

"This is a guy who truly loved kids. Kids were his energy," Galinowski said.

An incident at the detention center made the point. Maureen Honan, the center's assistant superintendent, recalled it at Mr. Presley's funeral.

A youngster at the center had become angry and began calling Mr. Presley "every name in the book." Mr. Presley went into the cell to calm the boy -- who then spit in Mr. Presley's face.

Said Honan: "Officer Presley took a step back, wiped his face, turned to the boy and said, 'but I still need to talk to you.' " Such a reaction was typical of his demeanor, friends said.

Mrs. Presley said her husband always treated her like "the queen of the universe."

She said she used to be a flight attendant. "I was really small. Then I gained weight. But he loved me just the same."

Many of the detention officers considered Mr. Presley a father figure, Honan said. They formed an honor guard at the funeral.

Toward the end, they filed past their comrade, dropping white roses in the casket, Mrs. Presley said.

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