Berkeley Prep to lose longtime headmaster dubbed 'Joe the Builder'

TOWN 'N COUNTRY

The grandfatherly smile belies Joe Merluzzi's disciplined mind and body.

Up at 5:12 a.m. Stretch.

Lift weights. Run 3.3 miles.

Shower, shave, arrive at Berkeley Preparatory School. First in, last out.

Nothing changed in the headmaster's routine in 24 years.

But it all comes screeching to a halt June 30. Merluzzi decided not to renew his contract with what administrators say is the area's largest private school, drawing students from throughout Hillsborough as well as Pinellas County. He is moving on, and a national search has already landed his successor, Joe Seivold, from Hopkins, Minn.

No more student forums, parent sessions, faculty workshops. No more late nights cheering 60 athletic teams, attending board meetings, applauding school plays. In two decades, Merluzzi says he missed only three theatrical productions at the college prep school west of Tampa International Airport.

He leaves a school barely recognizable to thousands of alumni.

"He took the founders' vision and accelerated it beyond our expectations," said chairman of the board Brett Divers, Berkeley Class of '85 and parent of two current students.

During Merluzzi's tenure:

• The campus footprint more than doubled, from 36 to 80 acres.

• A sluggish endowment exploded from $30,000 to $15 million.

• The student body of 1,270 earned national ranking for academics, arts and athletics.

Merluzzi said a typical headmaster lasts three board chairmen, or about six years.

"I'm on my 12th,'' he said, grinning. Chalk that up to an astute board and appreciative alumni, both categorized by local power players.

"First thing I did was add a prekindergarten,'' recalled Merluzzi, who turns 70 on June 14. "I threatened to put it in a trailer, and the money arrived."

The spigot continued to flow for improvements to the 50-year-old school.

A new rear entrance accesses a guarded gate, rimmed by wetlands and large oak trees. The Steinbrenner Building contains classrooms and offices in 19,000 square feet. The 634-seat Lykes Center for the Arts holds galleries, a dance studio, dressing rooms and an orchestra pit. Administrative offices, now called the Joseph A. Merluzzi Administration Complex, gained 5,000 square feet. And athletic facilities mushroomed with a new baseball complex, a junior Olympic swimming pool, tennis pavilions and a rock-climbing wall.

Still to come, a $50 million campaign is expected to create a dining hall, early childhood learning center, arts and sciences complex, alumni center and chapel, quad and clock tower, and a sports complex with two-story fieldhouse.

Merluzzi's legacy goes beyond bricks and mortar.

He has raised significant financial aid to fund dozens of student scholarships and faculty development stipends. Tuition starts at $15,840 for prekindergarten and tops out at $18,940, not counting books and uniforms.

Board member Ben West said Merluzzi marketed the Berkeley brand "by tying intellectual nourishment to the master plan."

Citing an Advanced Placement Mandarin Chinese course and sixth-grade global studies as examples, West said, "What has occurred in the classroom is just as phenomenal as the physical growth.''

Merluzzi began his own education studying engineering, as per the wishes of his father, a manufacturing foreman and cooper. But a serious auto accident at age 20 temporarily sidelined his first college try.

As he recovered, substitute teaching, "without a degree in those days," he notes, triggered a lifelong connection to children. He went on to earn degrees from Western Connecticut State College and Fairfield University.

Those early engineering classes stuck with him. Around Berkeley, his nickname is Joe the Builder, a riff on an industrious children's cartoon character.

Years spent teaching, coaching and counseling students at the prestigious Choate and Cranbrook private schools in Connecticut and Michigan prepared him for Berkeley's top spot.

But was Tampa ready for him?

"Board members told me to dream,'' he says, but shortsighted his vision.

Don't bother to unpack, he told his wife, Lorraine.

But she wasn't budging. Daughter Jennifer enrolled as a junior; son Michael was away at Emory University. Both children are now parents of twins, said the delighted grandfather. Lorraine joined the faculty as a third-grade teacher from 1988 to 1995. The couple live in Carrollwood.

Merluzzi's oversight — some would say control — extended to admissions, hiring and security.

"I am demanding,'' he admits. "Delegating has been one of the toughest lessons.

"I still tend to be interfering, and I'm still working on the reward aspect for doing what you're supposed to do."

It's no wonder he calls George M. Steinbrenner "my hero."

The headmaster isn't ready to disclose what's next on his agenda. Only that he'll never lower his standard for success.

"Empower people, set your expectations, hold them responsible."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

.Fast facts

Headmaster

Joe Merluzzi

Leaving: Berkeley Prep after 24 years.

On the horizon: Not revealing just yet, other than to attend the U.S. Open with his son.

Always in his briefcase: Itinerary from a trip to France in 2000, a copy of his father's eulogy, Italian and Spanish phrase book and family photos.

Motto: "I plan today so people can have successful tomorrows."

Berkeley Prep to lose longtime headmaster dubbed 'Joe the Builder' 05/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 5:30am]

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