ST. PETERSBURG — At every stop, the message was the same: Dream big. And never forget your roots.
And there was even some screaming for joy.
As his fellow top 10 American Idol finishers spent Thursday traveling to Los Angeles for rehearsals before a summer tour, Michael Lynche returned to his hometown to receive a day named in his honor and the adulation of kids at area schools.
He began with an early-morning stop at a packed City Council chamber, where St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster handed him a key to the city and declared June 3 Michael Lynche Day. Several city leaders praised Lynche's fourth-place finish on Fox TV's blockbuster singing competition.
By day's end, Lynche had visited several Pinellas schools he attended or worked at before his 2006 move to New York, including Gibbs High School, Thurgood Marshall Middle, John Hopkins Middle, Hamilton Disston School and Maximo Elementary.
"My city is my heart," Lynche said at City Hall, noting how he had resisted Idol producers' request that he declare his current home in Astoria, N.Y., as his hometown on the show. "It was important for me to remember; I'm just a small town guy from South St. Pete … I'll never be somebody you have to worry about. I'll always represent St. Pete in a beautiful way."
It was a return many had hoped to see weeks earlier, but Lynche was ejected from Idol on May 12 — days before the show taped its Homecoming Week episode featuring footage shot in the hometowns of the top three contestants.
Still, that didn't dampen the enthusiasm Lynche found at every stop Thursday, accompanied by his wife, Christa, who carried their 5-month-old daughter, Laila Rose, in a pink infant carrier strapped to her chest. The family, joined by Christa's parents, Frank and Laura Angelelli, traveled to each stop in a sprawling stretch limousine, followed by a miniature entourage of cameras from local media and the school system.
At Gibbs, where Lynche graduated from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts magnet, former teachers and friends packed an auditorium to hear him strum a guitar and sing a version of Elvis Presley's In the Ghetto.
Minutes later he caught up with 18-year-old senior Richard Griffin, whom he had mentored back when Griffin was a sixth-grader at Thurgood Marshall, struggling with anger issues and growing up in a single-parent home. Looking on was former Gibbs school resource officer Richard Hawkins, who provided the same sort of mentoring for Lynche when the singer was in high school, also growing up in a single-parent home.
"(Lynche) understood every angle about me," Griffin said. "Whenever I had a problem with teachers … he would always be there. Kind of like a father figure."
At Thurgood Marshall, Lynche received a reception reminiscent of Beatlemania. Throngs of students shrieked at his entrance into the school gymnasium, where he sang bits of Kate Bush's This Woman's Work, India Arie's Ready for Love and In the Ghetto. Mobbed by groups of kids after his performance, Lynche grabbed some students in his infamous bear hug, sending them running back to friends shouting in giddy pleasure.
Before the school visits started, Lynche thought about who was missing at the celebrations: his mother, Michele Lynche, a former community columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, who died in 2004 of cancer.
With rehearsals for the American Idol Live! tour set to begin today, Lynche has had little time for rest as the show sends its top finalists across the country for promotional events. He also is waiting to hear whether the company that produces Idol, 19 Entertainment, will offer him a recording deal in the way it has picked up winner Lee DeWyze.
"Last year they picked up the top five people, so I'm in a good position," Lynche said. "My whole goal was to work afterwards; to have a career. I think I proved on the show that I can take any song and make it my own."
Thursday's visit brought lots of nostalgia, as officials and teachers recalled moments from Lynche's life. They talked about how his family formed a singing group and performed at the city's early First Night events on New Year's Eve, and remembered the Gibbs production of Much Ado About Nothing where Lynche played a drag queen.
"Big Mike is truly our American Idol," declared Foster, whose office arranged Lynche's tour of local schools. "He's never forgotten his roots. He had one day off; they could have spent it at the beach … or he could spend today with the kids.
"And he chose the kids."