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    Mr. Nicely decides he'll stick around

    The Tarpon Springs High principal was to retire for health reasons, but decides to give it two more years.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001

    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    John Nicely, 60, has headed Tarpon Springs High since 1991. He has responded well to treatment for Parkinson's disease.
    TARPON SPRINGS -- When the trembling began in his arms and he lost the ability to write with his right hand, John Nicely started planning for retirement.

    His Parkinson's disease was only getting worse. He decided to leave his job as principal of Tarpon Springs High School at the end of the 2000-01 school year.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to retirement. Nicely signed up for an experimental drug from Israel three years ago. Not long after he took the first white pill, the trembling subsided. He could speak clearly and for longer periods of time. He could sign his name with his dominant hand again.

    "Immediately, the symptoms started to lessen," Nicely said.

    Throughout the current school year, Nicely, 60, still planned to make this year his last at Tarpon High because of the progressive neurological disorder. But along the way, he started thinking about staying at the school he has headed since 1991. He and his wife, Marilyn, talked about their options during spring break.

    His wife was concerned about Nicely's health. But by the end of a day at Cypress Gardens, they decided Nicely shouldn't retire just yet.

    "I'm looking forward to spending the next two years here," Nicely said Wednesday, the last day of school in Pinellas County.

    Colleagues and students said they like Nicely's friendly, understated style and his obvious dedication to the school.

    "He is truly a sweetheart," said Dianna Frazier, Nicely's secretary. "I'm really happy that he's going to stay."

    "I don't want him to retire," said freshman Talia Bardis, 15. "He cares about the students. He likes to take care of the kids."

    Nicely, who lives in Clearwater, began his career in Pinellas County schools as an assistant football coach and guidance counselor at Clearwater High School in 1973. He later became an assistant principal there and at Dunedin High School. In February 1991, he was named principal at Tarpon Springs.

    Not normally an excitable man, Nicely becomes almost animated when he talks about the school.

    "This is the gem of Pinellas County," he said. "This is the best-kept secret in the county."

    He pointed out that even though the school received a C in the recent grades given out by the state, it was, overall, the second-most-improved high school in the county in reading, math and writing.

    He likes that the community is diverse and close-knit, he said. He said he feels a strong affection for the students and teachers at the school.

    That's why he had no problem telling the teachers why he had planned to retire, and why he changed his mind. In typical fashion, he didn't make a splashy announcement; he simply sent a short note to faculty members. He told them he has Parkinson's, he is doing better and he is planning to return for two more years.

    "It's not something I wear as a badge on my shoulder," Nicely said of the disease that also afflicts actor Michael J. Fox and former Attorney General Janet Reno. "But I don't mind talking about it if people ask."

    Nicely continues to take the drugs Carb/levo and Permax, which are commonly used as Parkinson's treatments, as well as Rasagiline, the experimental drug from Israel. The experimental drug is designed to boost the effects of the other two, so he has not had to increase the dosage or frequency of those medications.

    Nicely, who received his diagnosis five years ago, returns to Tampa General Hospital every six weeks, where doctors monitor his progress on the medication. He is part of a trial group that is testing the medication. Nicely hopes that when the trial is completed, Rasagiline will be approved for use in the United States so he and others can continue to have access to it.

    Even with the medication, Parkinson's still slows him down at times, Nicely said.

    "I have to monitor my schedule," he said. "I get tired as the day goes on."

    But inevitably, he said, he gets a second wind toward the end of the day. He anticipates that his relative good health will last for a long time and that he will be able to work without a problem for the next two years.

    He looks forward to overseeing senior projects at the school, a program he has championed. The program, which no other Pinellas school has, allows students to select a topic and research it during the marking period. They complete the term with a presentation before a panel of adult judges.

    Nicely also wants to be there when a massive construction project is completed at the school next summer. For the past year, the school has shaken from the bulldozers and drills as construction workers add to the school's space.

    He said he doesn't mind going through one more year of noise and dust. When all the work is done, he said, the school will be modernized and more solidly constructed.

    "The last year," he said, "I can reap the benefits."

    - Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182.

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