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Schools boss who oversaw changing era dies

Hernando's longest tenured school superintendent, James Kenneth Austin, deftly managed a tumultuous period from the '60s through the '80s. He was 74.

JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published November 15, 2003

BROOKSVILLE - When Gov. Claude Kirk appointed J. Kenneth Austin to lead Hernando County schools in 1967, the district was small, rural, segregated and nonunion.

The county did not stay that way for long, though. And during his 21-year tenure as superintendent, Mr. Austin coped with unprecedented growth, integration, teacher strikes and more, all in a low-key manner that often defused tense situations, said his friend and former School Board member Mary Ann Hogan.

"He was a peacemaker, whereas some of us were not so conciliatory," Hogan said. "He always thought of the overall effect on the system."

James Kenneth Austin, Hernando County's longest tenured schools superintendent, died Thursday (Nov. 13, 2003) after a sudden illness. He was 74.

Born in Newberry in 1929, Mr. Austin moved to Brooksville at age 5. He played quarterback for Hernando High School, graduating in 1947, and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After 31 months in the service, Mr. Austin enrolled at the University of Florida, spending three years before re-enlisting in the Army and volunteering to fight in Korea.

Shortly after the war ended, Mr. Austin completed his degree at UF. He held several jobs, including salesman, builder and shoe store owner, before settling into the Hernando County school system as a teacher. He was assistant principal at Hernando High when Gov. Kirk tapped him to serve as superintendent.

He went on to win two elections, garnering two-thirds of the vote each time and retaining the post three other times unopposed.

Leland McKeown, a friend who also served on the School Board during Mr. Austin's tenure, recalled the times as "tough." The district was in a building mode, and it also grappled with mandatory desegregation. Mr. Austin was up to the task, he said.

"Kenneth Austin was one of the most organized, fairest people I've ever worked with," McKeown said. "He knew what he was doing. He knew the job. He was fair to all people."

Not that he always pleased everyone.

"He guided the school system through this period of growth. The old timers were firmly against it," recalled Joe Johnston Jr., the district's lawyer for much of Mr. Austin's tenure.

People moving in from the North expected the same services they had back home, Johnston said, and providing those services cost money that many preferred not to pay.

"Kenneth came through some rough times," Johnston said. "He was always in the forefront of doing the right thing at the right time."

Not all of his actions were universally lauded. Mr. Austin was criticized for funneling construction projects to friends, for instance. But many observed that a leader during change necessarily will run into opposition from some quarters.

"He was a great superintendent considering the changes from when he started until when he left," said Edd Poore, a longtime friend and fishing partner whom Mr. Austin encouraged to enter the school district administration. "He was a great boss and a good guy to work for. As long as you were within policy, rules and law, you didn't have to worry about his support."

Mr. Austin won praise for his willingness to listen to black students with complaints during integration. Some black students said they were spat upon and called epithets at Hernando High School, and African-American band members boycotted events because they were required to play Dixie. The district avoided widespread violence during desegregation, though, and many credited Mr. Austin's leadership.

Perhaps the most trying event for Mr. Austin came soon after he took office, when 22 teachers held firm in a statewide teacher walkout, said Leauna Morton, then the district's finance director. The School Board fired the teachers and refused to take them back.

"Most of them were his close friends," she said, adding that Mr. Austin "loved his friends. ... He enjoyed people."

His laugh, actually closer to a cackle, would light up a room, Morton added.

He also was full of jokes, "mostly PG," recalled his daughter, June Dail Austin Pruc. Anytime he called anyone, he had a joke, she said.

She remembered her father for his willingness to travel long distances to meet relatives he barely knew, as family was so important. She also spoke of his passion for UF football games.

She laughed as she recalled Mr. Austin coming home from work each day for a protein shake and his daily fix of the television soap opera All My Children.

Since retiring in 1988, Mr. Austin and his wife, Nell, have split their time between Brooksville, Fernandina Beach and Franklin, N.C. He spent a lot of time outdoors, Pruc said, doing yardwork and clearing land as recently as a month ago.

The couple had just bought a new travel trailer and were making travel plans when Mr. Austin became ill.

Visitation will be from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Sunday at the Merritt Funeral Home, Brooksville chapel. Services will be at 2 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church of Brooksville. Interment will follow at Lake Lindsey Cemetery.

- Information from Times files was used in this article.

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