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Here's a refresher course on names behind schools

As two new schools are named, here's a reminder about the men, and a woman, whose names are attached to older schools.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- You remember Thomas Church Campbell, right? And R.S. Blanton, George Wesley Perkins, George M. Lynch and Elza B. Lealman, both Jr. and Sr.? Of course you do. Because, as you already know, they were important personages whose names now grace public schools.

Naming inanimate things such as buildings is a tradition about as old as recorded history. Often, the practice is somewhat self-serving (the Elgin Marbles, Trump Tower, the Medici Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia, for example. And St. Petersburg, Fla., too, for that matter).

Just as often, and sometimes in partnership with vanity, there is a desire to acknowledge a life of worth and accomplishment (most churches). Or major financial contributions (most galleries in any museum you can think of). But mortal concerns are mutable, and after a few years or decades, the name itself can take on a life of its own, apart from the person who originally was intended for honor and immortality.

Unlike many organizations and institutions that name things willy-nilly, the School Board policy is clear, said Marlene Mueller, director of pupil assignments, who has been head of the school naming committee for five years.

"The name is recommended by the School Board. It must be short and descriptive if it's a place. If it's a person, the person should be an outstanding civic or educational leader of local or national repute," she said.

Mueller also said naming schools for individuals is more prevalent today than it was when the first county schools were being built. Those early edifices were usually given geographic names to help locate them. St. Petersburg High School, opened around 1910, was the rule; Gibbs High School, opened in 1927, was the exception.

Before you start lining up for the privilege of having a school named in your honor, also know that you have to have been dead for at least one year.

On Tuesday the Pinellas County School Board approved names of two new schools to commemorate distinguished men. But take a look back in local history to remember some of the people who were deemed notable enough at one time to have their names affixed to other, older schools.

Blanton Elementary School, opened in 1963: Robert Salton Blanton was elected school superintendent in 1920, and during his seven-year tenure, student enrollment increased from about 5,500 students to about 19,000. In response, 33 new schools were built in Pinellas County. Near the end of his term, the boom went bust and Blanton recommended a reduction of 10 percent on administrative salaries, in time for George M. Lynch, who had defeated him for re-election, to take over. Lynch also has a school named for him.

Campbell Park School, opened in 1961: Technically, Campbell Park, which began as an elementary school to handle overcrowding at Sixteenth Street Elementary-Middle School, was named for its location in the Campbell Park area. But there was a Mr. Campbell before there was a Campbell Park. Thomas Church Campbell was a businessman who wintered in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s before becoming a permanent resident. Campbell bought and carved up a large tract of land in the area, selling lots to black residents who wanted to build homes there.

Dixie Hollins High School, opened in 1959: Dixie M. Hollins was Pinellas County's first superintendent of schools, appointed in 1912, and at just 25, probably its youngest. The county was also very young, having just become independent from Hillsborough. Pinellas County had a total of 22 schools, including the original St. Petersburg High School and, by accounts of the day, the only one not considered extremely primitive. Most schools had no running water or lavatories. By the time Hollins left the job in 1920, the number of schools had increased to 35 and all schools had been upgraded with indoor plumbing.

Gibbs High School, opened in 1927: The school is one of the oldest in the county and, unusual for the times in which it was created, it was named after a black man. Jonathan C. Gibbs of Tallahassee rose to prominence during Reconstruction in Florida. He became secretary of state in 1868, the only black Cabinet member, and later served as state superintendent of public instruction in 1873. Gibbs' son, Thomas, was a lawyer who also figured prominently in Republican politics in the late 1800s.

John Hopkins Middle School, opened in 1998: John Henry Hopkins Sr. served as principal of Sixteenth Street Elementary and later Sixteenth Street Junior High. The School Board has a policy of not renaming schools unless they have been rebuilt, and such was the case with Sixteenth Street, which became a middle school decades ago. The aging facility, built in 1952, was razed and a massive new $18-million school was built on its site, paving the way for a new name. Hopkins, who died in 1992, was nominated by his son Leslie, and several dozen letters of support from teachers and community leaders supported the nomination. After leaving the school system in 1972, Hopkins helped organize the Pinellas County Urban League and was executive director of the Pinellas County Opportunity Council.

Lealman Discovery School, originally a junior high, opened in 1927, and Lealman Elementary opened in 1935: Like Campbell Park, the Lealman schools reference a location that originally referenced a person. Georgia native Elza B. Lealman Sr. settled in an unincorporated area northwest of St. Petersburg's boundaries in the early 1870s. For years it had its own post office and train depot.

Lynch Elementary, opened in 1958: Born during the post-war prosperity of the Eisenhower era, Lynch is named for a school superintendent who presided over some of the most economically challenging times for Pinellas County schools. George M. Lynch was elected in 1927, just as the country was entering the Depression. He stayed until his death in 1935. During those years, Lynch kept schools open and teachers at least partly paid, sometimes in scrip, even as the entire maintenance staff was laid off (and teachers did janitorial chores), all telephones were disconnected, and most lights not allowed to be turned on except in emergencies. Lynch's daughter, Margaret Lynch, was the school's first principal.

Perkins Elementary School, opened in 1958: George Wesley Perkins, born in Gainesville, began teaching at 16 in a one-room school in Archer, Fla. He visited St. Petersburg in 1900, then settled here in 1925. He was principal of Jordan Elementary School and then Gibbs. If times were difficult during the Depression, they were even more so for schools for black students. Gibbs, which opened in 1925, was overcrowded and under-supplied from the beginning. When the county did not fund expansion, Perkins organized a program in which people bought a brick for $10 to build a combined gym, auditorium and cafeteria. The money was raised "brick by brick," a story at the time reported. Perkins, who died in 1955, was a respected and influential voice in education.

Rawlings Elementary, opened in 1992: The school name is anomalous to this group because it refers to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, famous transplant who immortalized Florida Cracker life in books such as The Yearling and Cross Creek. Her name was chosen for the school over nominations of local educators because of its writing program.

Sexton Elementary, opened in 1997: John M. Sexton died at 58 in 1967, a nationally known educator who first gained prominence as an athlete and coach. Locally, Sexton was head football coach at St. Petersburg High and principal of Southside Junior High School and Northeast High School. He also served in county administrative positions. He spoke to national education groups and was invited to conferences in Washington by presidents Eisenhower and Johnson. Sexton's son, Dennis, is longtime CEO of All Children's Hospital.

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