BRANDON — Dick Stowers crafted an exemplary life as a citizen after graduating from Brandon High School in 1947.
He established a landmark local business, donated countless dollars to philanthropic causes and an elementary school bears his name.
Yet a far more mischievous Stowers landed in the office of E. F. McLane, the most storied principal in the school's 100-year history. How McLane handled Stowers' brush with trouble defined the principal, and maybe made Stowers a better person.
While enjoying a high school smoke break — students could smoke back then — out by Brandon's old agriculture building, Stowers spotted a dead, 5-foot black snake and decided it would be hilarious to place the carnivorous reptile on the classroom floor and wait for a reaction.
"Pandemonium broke out," he said.
Moments later he found himself being scolded by McLane after the biology teacher sent him to the office. McLane threatened to expel Stowers for five days.
An independent teenager who had lived on his own in the funeral home where he worked since he was 16, Stowers worried that his mother would track him down and administer a worse punishment.
So instead, he asked McLane to get the board and paddle him.
"After Mr. McLane finished paddling me, he had a tear his eye and asked if we were still friends," Stowers said. "I told him, 'Oh, yes, Mr. McLane, we are the best of friends.' "
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McLane, the longest serving of the 14 principals to lead Brandon in its century, guided the Eagles from 1930 to 1964. The stadium that bears his name will host a century celebration March 1, featuring concerts, an alumni team challenge, a silent auction, a food truck rally and a speech from current principal Carl Green.
Other Brandon graduates remember McLane, a World War I veteran and a University of Florida graduate, as a strong, respected leader.
"He was a great man," said Helen Mulrennan-Young, Class of 1942. "He always walked around with his hands in his pocket jingling his change. He knew us all by name. He could be stern when he needed to, but he was wonderful."
In an email, McLane's son Ted shared a story about how Brandon faced funding challenges during the Great Depression. The principal worked through the tough times, even though in some years officials trimmed the school term from nine to eight months.
In latter years, the basketball team continued to play on an outdoor concrete court, McLane walked door-to-door to persuade residents to vote for extra taxes to build a gym, which was constructed in 1948.
Such dedication helps illuminate his longevity at the school.
"He was there for 34 years," said Earl Lennard, who graduated four years before McLane retired and spent 41 in the Hillsborough County school system including nine as district superintendent.
"That's pretty unheard of nowadays. There's truly something to be said for stability. I think people had more patience when I went to school and there was more respect for teachers at that time."
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McLane was the first Brandon principal not to use the term professor in his title, unlike the first four leading educators at the school. After he left, James Randall succeeded McLane, followed by Lyle R. Flagg, who took Brandon into the 1970s leading the school through a teacher strike, desegregation and overcrowding that spawned the creation of double sessions.
Brandon students gave him a 1974 Plymouth Duster when he left the school and went on to open Armwood High School, whose students also gave him a 1990 Plymouth Sundance when he left that school.
In 1982, former Army veteran Orlan H. Briant went to Tallahassee as part of his principal's duties at Brandon to accept a Red Carpet award from Gov. Bob Graham. That status placed Brandon among the top five high schools in Florida. That same year, he chaperoned the Brandon orchestra on a trip to Austria.
A year later, Briant received an Excellence in Education award from President Ronald Reagan at the White House, as Brandon became the first Florida school to earn that distinction for achievement in academics, athletics and organizations.
Former Brandon writing teacher Angelo Resciniti called Briant an innovator for helping him start the first television production class in Hillsborough County in 1983, teaching students how to produce videos.
"He was open to ideas and innovation," Resciniti said. "Even with a stuffed campus of 4,000 students, he found space for me."
Another first occurred under M. Linwood Nelson's watch in 1988. Nelson accompanied Eagles wrestling coach Russ Cozart to Tallahassee as the Florida Legislature honored Brandon's wrestlers for earning the most consecutive wins in the nation.
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Current principal duties have Green walking the campus of Brandon daily at 11 a.m. during lunch. Safety, he says, is a major priority for principals in the new millennium.
"Safety wasn't a big issue, as far as that goes, back in the day," said Green, who came to Brandon in 2009 after leading Middleton High School. "It's always important to me to make sure they are secure."
On a recent Tuesday morning, he sees a female student sitting alone outside and asks if she is okay. Unsupervised kids congregating at the outside picnic tables get up and scamper back inside the cafeteria when they spot him.
A girl rolls by alone in her wheelchair and he shouts, "Hey, Emily." He talks about how he played basketball with her, a new student, and plans to keep tabs on her social and academic acclimation to Brandon.
"Our kids are looking for a relationship," he said. "And it's up to us to provide mature, responsible relationships."
Inside the lunchroom, where students are allowed to play music on their cellphones and you might spot a DJ spinning tunes a few times a year, he razzes a Florida Gators fan for wearing a bright orange shirt.
"I joke with my kids," said Green, who oversees 1,950 of them and remembers growing up in South Carolina during segregation.
A couple holding hands temporarily separate as they walk past their principal while another student approaches him to request a favor.
"I'm not getting you ice," he says before she can ask him to warm up her food.
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Green is a 24-year Navy veteran, a cancer survivor and the face of about 140 employees at the school, including his secretary, Natalie Burnett-Reitzloff, on whom he bestows special kudos for helping him direct the Eagles' Nest every day.
He inherited a C-rated school and helped Brandon earn its first A grade in 2012.
He says he tries to put his face in every classroom regularly so the teachers know they have his support. He also remembers a time when educators didn't have to worry about telephones, let alone social media and the negative impact it can have on student life.
"I love the kids," he said. "I'm not saying things don't happen, we have to now intervene when kids are outside on Instagram or whatever. If it's something that's going to be coming to our school that's a distraction, then we have to get involved, we have to protect our kids."
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]