ST. PETERSBURG — Nothing on the St. Petersburg College board of trustees agenda signaled the surprise to come at the end of the meeting.
So when William D. Law Jr. announced his retirement as president Tuesday morning, board chairwoman Lauralee Westine felt tears come to her eyes. Looking around, she saw she wasn't alone.
Law, 68, has been a college president for 29 years, and St. Petersburg College's leader for six and a half. When his wife brought up retirement last weekend, Law said, "You know what, I think I'm ready to move on."
"I still enjoy every moment of what I'm doing, but the last thing I want to do is go out on a gurney from my office," Law told the Tampa Bay Times. "There's never a good time. This one's probably as good as any."
He will step down in July feeling proud, he said.
Under Law, the sprawling college deepened its county ties, renewing relationships with institutions like Pinellas County schools and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. It expanded its faculty, drew accolades for student advising and opened the new Midtown Center in St. Petersburg with a focus on leveling the educational playing field.
"Getting that built, simply put, that's going to change lives," Westine said, referring to the center. "That's his crowning glory in all of his accomplishments. He has been absolutely laser-focused on making it so his students succeed."
Kevin Gordon, provost of the Midtown Center and downtown campus, remembers the pride in Law's voice at the center's grand opening in August 2015, savoring what it meant to have an institution of higher education in the area.
He said Law's passion, driven by data, kept the focus on students.
"Number one: What can we do to get students to the classroom in the best possible condition for learning?" Gordon said, describing Law's philosophy. "And number two: We have to help students finish what they started."
Law said he will help facilitate the search for a new president but will step aside when board members make their choice. He said he would like to see his successor focus on nurturing students and steering them into meaningful jobs.
"We still see far too many students who come to us and don't succeed," Law said. He's most excited when he sees students thrive because of what St. Petersburg College offers, whether it's customized learning plans or a robust orientation program. He'll miss seeing that transformation happen.
"I think of him as a statesman," said Sophia Wisniewska, regional chancellor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and one of several local leaders to offer Law kudos. The two recently worked together on a partnership that guarantees admission to the USF system for participating regional college students.
"His resignation, I think, is a huge loss," she said.
Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego called Law "an exceptional educational leader" and a friend.
"His exemplary leadership has advanced our community through expanded educational opportunities for students," Grego said in a statement.
Mayor Rick Kriseman lauded Law's investment in St. Petersburg, especially the college's downtown and Midtown campuses.
"Under his leadership, SPC has been recognized nationally for improving student outcomes and providing equal opportunities to higher education," Kriseman said in a statement.
Law came to St. Petersburg from Tallahassee Community College, where he had been president since 2002. Before that, he was president of Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill., and was the founding president of Montgomery College in Houston.
In 2009, when longtime St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler said in a surprise announcement he would retire after 31 years, he suggested an ally, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, for his job.
Some trustees counted Baker as a friend, but others bristled at his lack of academic credentials. Ultimately, Baker's vigorous bid was shot down, and Law became a finalist alongside other academics. When he was named the president in April 2010, one trustee called him "tried and true" — a safe choice, despite a reputation for having a temper.
Since taking the job, Law has racked up numerous honors. He has consulted with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Aspen Institute and has served on boards at the local, state and national level.
And he has always had a next step, until now.
"It wasn't like I was jumping to something else, and that's kind of new," Law said. "I've always had some other goal in mind, and this time the goal was to make as graceful an exit as I possibly can."
Law lives with his wife, Pat, in St. Petersburg. They have two sons, Brett and Matt, and two grandsons, Beckett and Theo.
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.