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City People

School's out forever

By REBECCA RICHARDS
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003

PALMA CEIA -- As a little girl, Annamae Johnson would line up dolls on her bed, teaching ABCs and numbers from a blackboard. She read to them, too, carefully enunciating the words.

Johnson parlayed her childhood play into a career rich with experience and fond memories.

After 45 years, she will retire from Plant High School on Wednesday. Nine principals have been her boss, and she says each was the best for his time.

"I've never worked with anyone I didn't like," she says.

Diplomacy is one of her trademarks. She's quiet, yet forceful; direct, yet unabrasive; dignified, yet game enough to have been a cheerleader at a Panther Pride rally.

Current principal Eric Bergholm persuaded her to dress up and cheer.

"He has the most infectious personality," Johnson says. "He's a great person to have as my last principal."

The admiration is mutual.

"She's been my right arm," Bergholm says.

Johnson -- then Annamae Whitehouse -- joined the Plant faculty as an English teacher in 1957. She has been English department head, then dean of girls, and assistant principal for curriculum since 1973.

No other assistant principal has served as long in one school, says a school district spokeswoman.

Year after year, she has designed the school schedule, helped hire faculty, kept watch over teachers and department heads, and solved problems for students and parents.

She has also served as unofficial campus grammarian.

"If I wanted a letter written with everything just right, I would ask Annamae to read over it," says Paul Wharton, Plant principal for seven years in the 1970s. Wharton High School is named for him.

When Bergholm joined Plant three years ago, Wharton warned him to make sure Johnson wasn't retiring.

She wasn't. Bergholm was grateful.

"She is so knowledgeable and unflappable," he says.

She has seen Plant through a teacher walkout in the '60s ("There were four of us here for three weeks," she says), double sessions and changing dress codes.

"Boots were not appropriate," she recalls. "They were thought to be too suggestive, like a go-go dancer."

Integration was the challenge of the 1970s. Black students and white students studied each other cautiously, unsure of what to expect. Integration worked gradually and relatively painlessly, she says.

Plant, once all white, is now about 10 percent black.

Stress taxes today's students, Johnson says. Colleges are more competitive, and it's increasingly important to keep up grades and school activities. Often there are jobs to juggle, along with adult choices about alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

Through it all, her devotion to Plant has never wavered.

"I thought some day conditions might arise that made me think, 'I don't want to be here.' That hasn't happened," she says.

She applied only once to be principal, in the 1970s, then decided it was best to stay with what she knew.

An English degree from Ohio University paved the way for her career. She came to Tampa from Athens, Ohio, and interviewed at Plant. She was asked to start the next day.

She taught senior English to Gary Zamore, now a Tampa internist.

"I think most of us have experience with a teacher who leaves profound memories," he says. "She had a quiet, subdued way of instruction and respected us as human beings."

As he recalls, Mrs. Whitehouse wore Estee Lauder perfume, the same as his high school sweetheart, who is now his wife.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bucklew was Johnson's student teacher in 1964.

"She gave me guidance but didn't stand over my shoulder," Bucklew says. "I came away wanting to teach school."

Bucklew taught English for three years at Plant before deciding to go to law school.

Another former student, Sallie Savitz, recalls the impact Johnson had as her homeroom teacher. Savitz, who graduated in 1996, wasn't doing well in her freshman year.

Johnson, after talking with Savitz and her mother, suggested that teachers write down suggestions every couple of weeks to keep the teen on track.

"It wasn't that pleasant, but I'm glad now that it happened," says Savitz, now a speech therapist.

Savitz's father, Ed, who also had Johnson for English, calls her a "commanding figure."

"She had strong opinions and was no shrinking violet," he says. "I don't know that I have ever met another person like that."

Paul B. Johnson agrees his wife is incomparable. The former Hillsborough state attorney, now in private practice in South Tampa, married her in 1975.

He says his wife is optimistic, dignified, a beautiful writer and a music lover, although "she doesn't seem to go for my kind, country music."

She's kind to animals, he notes.

Cats are their pets of choice. She loves their antics, their independence, their unpredictability -- "kind of like men," she quips.

Not that either of the Johnsons is moody, she adds.

She can't recall ever dreading a coming Monday, not in 45 years.

Still, she's ready to retire.

She's looking forward to trips to Germany and Maine in May and June, to more time at their place in Longboat Key, to reading, to perhaps writing a book one day about Plant High School and her experiences there.

"This profession isn't for someone who doesn't like kids," she says. "They're not miniature adults. I have tried to maximize their strengths, pose options, and let them keep their dignity."

One cannot imagine Annamae Johnson behaving any other way.

Annamae Johnson

OCCUPATION: Plant High assistant principal.

UP NEXT: Retirement.

HOME: Davis Islands.

AGE: 69

HUSBAND: Paul B. Johnson.

INDULGENCE: Godiva milk chocolate.

PETS: Seven cats.

SCOOP ON THE CATS: Jennifer stays inside. Adopted, neutered strays Big Foot, Little Foot, Mandy, Tatters, Peanut Butter and Chelsey go in and out.

HER DARK SIDE: "I like wrestling and the Rock. I find it impossible to believe it's fake."

FAVORITE AUTHOR: Anne Tyler. "I wish she would write another book."

SHOPPING HAUNT: Ellenton mall, twice a year.

RETREATS: Longboat Key; Bar Harbor, Maine

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