By NEGAR TEKEEI
ST. PETERSBURG -- Armed with shovels and spades, 40 teenagers clad in T-shirts and shorts gathered 11 years ago in front of St. Petersburg High School with a mission: Transform the barren expanse in front of their school into a tree-speckled, shaded lawn.
Directing their efforts was a teacher who also volunteered as the Key Club sponsor. Paul Pollak, a tall, mustached American government and history teacher, was a favorite among the students. That morning, he brought along his then-4-year-old son to help with the school beautification project.
The group members and their leader knew that the hundreds of palm, oak, hedge and cypress trees they were planting would take years to grow and fill the front of the school. They also knew that one day the sweat of their exertions would prove fruitful.
A handful of these class of 1991 graduates, today in the trappings of working adults, gathered at the school's front steps Saturday. Eleven years had passed after they first planted the saplings, and the group beamed at the now well-developed trees that cover the lawn.
But one very important person was missing from the reunion, and, after the initial greetings and reminiscings, the group remembered one of the main reasons for being there: to dedicate the trees to the late Paul Pollak.
The popular teacher noted for his wit and love of politics was killed on Oct. 17, 1998, after his car was hit by a man speeding away from sheriff's deputies.
Pollak's death affected not only his wife and son but rocked the school and the hundreds of students he had known in 10 years of teaching.
"Mr. Pollak was sharp," said Ryan Orner, former Key Club member and chairman of the beautification project. "He was a great sponsor and worked hard for us."
Orner, who is pursuing a master's in business education at Georgetown University, learned of Pollak's death only a few months ago, when he began to coordinate the replacement of two oak trees that were destroyed by a lawnmower soon after they were planted.
The replanting would be a perfect way to bring the original group back to the front of the school during the weekend of the class reunion, Orner said. When he realized Pollak would not be there to join the group, Orner decided to dedicate the project and the newly planted trees to the former Key Club sponsor.
"I wanted to go ahead with the project," he said. "But it took on a greater meaning."
On Saturday, two partly grown oaks were planted in place of the ones destroyed years ago. The new trees complete a row of trees on one side of the pathway to the front entrance that faces Fifth Avenue N.
Orner said he was working on getting a small ground plaque to formally dedicate the project to Pollak. The memories, he said, are vivid.
"I can still see him talking to his son while they helped plant the trees," he said. "He called him Buddy then and you would hear him say: "All right, Buddy, come on.' "
The group looks forward to the next 10-year reunion.
"In addition to it being symbolic today, (10) years later, it's really important to be here to reflect," said Will Packer, a former Key Club member who today works as a filmmaker. "We have all matured and grown like these trees."
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