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Epilogue | Leon S. 'Bud' Zimmer

Bud Zimmer was advocate for Pinellas fundamental schools

Everyone says parental involvement is a key ingredient in a child's education.

Leon S. "Bud" Zimmer lived it.

For 33 years — from the time his oldest child enrolled in kindergarten until Mr. Zimmer died Sunday at age 80 — he never stopped.

Never stopped going to School Board meetings. Never stopped visiting schools. Never stopped advocating for the one thing he believed every desiring parent in Pinellas County should have for the kids: more fundamental schools.

Thus, his nickname, "Mr. Fundamental."

A retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, Mr. Zimmer was 41 when he and wife, Jane, became parents for the first time. When daughter Melissa was 2 years old, the couple moved to Clearwater from New Jersey. The Zimmers worried their zoned school was too large for a soon-to-be kindergartener.

Curtis Fundamental Elementary offered a remedy. In 1976, Curtis had become the county's first campus to mandate contractual parental involvement, disciplinary standards and homework.

If a parent or student didn't hold up their end of the deal, the child could be sent back to a traditional school.

Mr. Zimmer loved it. It was safe, he thought. It was good. He became PTA president and started sharing the fundamental story with whoever would listen.

It started in the 1980s with a push for the creation of Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary, and it didn't stop.

Today, the district has more than 7,000 students in nine fundamental schools, including Osceola Fundamental High, which this spring celebrated its first graduating class.

Mr. Zimmer sat on the stage during Osceola's commencement, beaming over the students' — and the school's — accomplishments.

"He wasn't a flash in the pan," said Dave Rosenberger, principal at Clearwater Fundamental, where Mr. Zimmer kept a mailbox for school-related materials.

Rosenberger met Mr. Zimmer 13 years ago while a guidance counselor at the now closed Southside Fundamental. Unlike most involved parents, whose involvement rises while their children are enrolled then fades away when they leave, Mr. Zimmer was a constant.

With demand for fundamental schools more than double the capacity today, Mr. Zimmer spent his last months pushing for the addition of another high school — a debate still raging as half of the county's high schools suffer state-issued grades of D or F.

Mr. Zimmer knew the data clerks at each of the schools and called on them regularly for information on how their students' performance measured up.

Jean Willingham counted on him. An involved member of the year-old Fundamental Schools Advocacy Network, Willingham met Mr. Zimmer 10 years ago.

He was the tall fellow who approached her at a School Board meeting, pinned a yellow piece of construction paper to her shoulder that read "FUN," and instructed her on how best to advocate for turning Thurgood Marshall Middle into a fundamental school.

"He was there, and he was in charge," Willingham remembered.

But not everyone shared Mr. Zimmer's passion for fundamentals. As the movement expanded, it encountered plenty of resistance, primarily from those worried that the schools drained the strongest students and most involved parents from the schools that needed them most.

Former Pinellas County superintendent Howard Hinesley said he had great respect for Mr. Zimmer, but they didn't always agree.

"I had to remind him on occasion that my job was to look at the big picture," Hinesley said Monday. "I had to keep in perspective that every school, based on the criteria, couldn't be a fundamental school. If it was, you would have to send kids over to Hillsborough County."

When Mr. Zimmer wasn't keeping tabs on the state of the school district, daughter Melissa Pierce, 38, of Lutz said, he enjoyed hunting, volunteering as a commissioner for the Boy Scouts of America, and being a grandfather to five.

Mr. Zimmer's family said he was diagnosed with thymoma cancer four years ago, though his active schedule disguised his sickness. He died at home.

Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

>>BIOGRAPHY

Leon "Bud" S. Zimmer

Born: May 14, 1930.

Died: Aug. 15, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Jane; daughter Melissa Pierce and her husband Greg; son Jonathan and his wife Julie; five grandchildren; and six brothers and sisters.

Service: Pending.

Bud Zimmer was advocate for Pinellas fundamental schools 08/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 11:13pm]
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