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You'll be missed, Mr. Bill

Bill Sund wasn't a typical private school parent, in several ways. Within a rough exterior lay a warm, genuine soul.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The image is familiar and predictable: Minivans and SUVs pull up in front of the small private school, disgorging sleepy-eyed children in uniforms who carry backpacks and sometimes remember to wave goodbyes to dogs, babies in car seats, and mothers and fathers, dressed for the office or suburban pursuits.

In this conventional snapshot of daily life at Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School in Shore Acres, one would not expect to see a parent like Bill Sund.

Sund wore his hair long and pulled back in a ponytail. Some of his front teeth were missing. He dressed in muscle shirts. He smoked without apology. He was covered in tattoos.

And yet staff and other parents depended on him. Children loved him.

To everyone, he was Mr. Bill.

Sund, 47, died unexpectedly Tuesday in his home after helping that morning at LCC, putting out flags advertising an upcoming auction. The cause of death has not been determined.

"I thought it was odd that he wasn't at school that afternoon," said Holly Carlson, director of the elementary school. "He was always here. He was the one who remembered to lock the playground gate, to take in flags. Things just got done and you were never really sure how."

Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School has 185 students in its K-5 elementary school in northeast St. Petersburg. Across Chancellor Street sits Lutheran Church of the Cross, which houses classrooms for another 135 preschool children.

Bill Sund began volunteering at LCC when his daughter, Dakota, now in second grade, was a preschooler. Sund had the time because a permanent disability left him unable to work.

"At first, parents were standoffish," said Carlson, the school director.

"He looked like a big motorcycle guy," said Debra Dandar, a parent.

"When I first saw him," said Matthew Smith, 7, "I thought he would be really mean. He looked rough."

"He was not like my daddy," said Michelle Methot, 10. "My daddy has brown short hair, and no tattoos."

If Sund was aware that he was at first viewed with suspicion, even apprehension, he never acknowledged it, said Carlson. "He was a gentle man. The most genuine person I ever met."

"He was so friendly," said Celeste Stroud, whose daughter Haley has been a classmate of Dakota Sund's since they were 3 years old. "You got past all that very quickly."

He seemed to have a special affinity for children, Stroud said.

"From the time my other daughter, Caroline, was born, until now -- she's 2 -- she has never taken to people. I am the only one she lets hold her. Except Mr. Bill. She loved him from the minute she met him. She let him carry her around the classrooms. She loved to pull on his beard, loved all the colors on his arms."

"Some of the dogs who ride in the cars would only let Mr. Bill unload the kids," Carlson said.

Early on, she remembered, he was helping in a classroom when the teacher was called away. Carlson said the teacher was reluctant to leave him alone, but he insisted, Carlson remembered, so she asked him to begin reading the story she had planned.

"When we came back in the classroom," Carlson said, "all the children were sitting around him. He wasn't reading the book because they had asked him about his missing teeth. So he was explaining how he'd lost them and what the tooth fairy had brought."

"He was wonderful," said Donna Burrichter, parent of a kindergartener. "We pulled into the driveway last night and there was the bird feeder he helped make."

"He'd pick us up by our ears," said Taylor Nyman, 8. "It didn't hurt because we'd hold onto his arms. He was very strong."

"Everyone grew to love him and trust him with their kids," Celeste Stroud said. "Haley and his daughter got to be good friends. Every Thursday night, he took the girls to the story hour at the library."

For all the hours he spent at LCC, no one knew much about him. His wife, Bonnie, worked at a nearby nursing home. Carlson thinks she discovered his body at home after he didn't pick Dakota up at school. They have another daughter, Jennifer, 17. Obituary information lists a son, deceased. Sund was born in Cleveland. He had been a precision machinist in the tool and die industry.

"They were private people," Stroud said. "I didn't really know much about them. He told me he was disabled and used his Social Security money to pay for his daughter's school."

"He didn't talk about himself," said Carlson, the school director. "He never wanted a fuss made about him."

"Once you got to know him, he was so nice," said Michelle Methot, the 10-year-old. "I'm sad. But then again, he's in heaven and we will see him again."

"It just goes to show you shouldn't go on first impressions," said Debra Dandar. "The kids loved him so much. We all did."

"My mom says you shouldn't judge a book by its cover," Michelle said. "I didn't want to judge him. He was just different. We never talked about that, but we did talk about how nice he was."

The second-grade students in Jen Johnson's class probably knew Sund best because that is his daughter's class. After chapel, at which his death was discussed, they shared happy memories of Mr. Bill.

"He would take his pocket watch out and stare at it when I was late," said Paige Tripp.

"He used to pick me up by my backpack," said Bryce Seaman.

"When we were getting ready to leave," said Leah Jarem, "he'd sneak up and make funny faces at us through the window."

"He," said Kacy Fry, "was like one of us."

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