NEW PORT RICHEY
Truth be told, Walter Hilgart would have preferred working in a classroom of teenagers Tuesday morning. It makes the day go by more quickly. But when he arrived at Gulf High School for his substitute teaching assignment, school leaders had other plans for him. They wanted Hilgart to have a laid-back day in the school, available to take over a class, but really there to get well wishes from students and staff members. It was, after all, a day to celebrate 90th birthdays — both his and the school's.
Gulf High opened as west Pasco's first high school with 39 students on Sept. 18, 1922, built with $35,000 of bond money. It remained the area's sole high school until Hudson High opened in 1974. Gulf High then moved to its current location in 1977.
Hilgart began substitute teaching at the school in 1988 as a 65-year-old retiree looking to keep himself busy, and he stuck around.
"I didn't expect anything this elaborate," Hilgart said after blowing out the candles on a special cake and receiving hugs, handshakes and a song.
His birthday really is Oct. 5. But the school district's oldest employee — he worked 149 days last year — enjoyed the idea of celebrating with the school that has been one of his homes away from home since his retirement as a Hillsborough teacher.
Teaching was Hilgart's second career, after serving in the military from World War II through the Cold War. He flew 22 combat missions at the end of WWII with the Army Air Forces. He then left the military briefly, later joining the Air Force. He reenlisted with three stripes and rose to chief master sergeant, the top enlisted grade.
His war stories, and his recollections of life over nearly a century, keep students enraptured. They say they often get their work done quickly for Hilgart, just so they can hear his tales.
"He's just great," said teacher George Brazier, who has had Hilgart teach in his class several times. "I had him with me on Veterans Day week. ... He shared his experiences with my kids, a lot of whom are ROTC kids. He's walking history."
When he first started subbing, he tried being extra firm with the students, knowing he wasn't their ordinary instructor. That didn't work, though.
"So I decided to be easy going," Hilgart said. "That worked — except for the freshmen." (He often turns down assignments to freshman classes now, saying the kids are still too "squirrelly.")
He said he encourages his students to do their work and make the best of the education they have available to them. But if they won't work, he just asks them to stay quiet so others can accomplish something.
That works for most students, said senior Kyle McDowell.
"He goes over everything in class, and makes us know we have to do that and how it's going to be, but in a very kindly manner," McDowell said. "Everybody knows him and loves him."
Junior Melinda Wilton has had Hilgart as a substitute at both Anclote and Gulf high schools, as well as Paul R. Smith Middle (before he stopped working at middle schools).
"At first when people started off, they didn't know if he was going to be mean or nice," she said. "But he's really big hearted. I don't know if I've ever seen him yell. People know not to disrespect Mr. Hilgart."
And for those who do try to take advantage of having a sub, McDowell added, everyone else shouts them down.
"It's a lot to work with us. There are some high schoolers that are rambunctious and crazy," he said. "That he does this at his age is cool."
Hilgart, who grew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin during the Great Depression, retired at age 65. He had been an industrial arts teacher at several Hillsborough County middle schools, but as his supervisors proposed increasing his work load, he decided to leave.
"I stayed retired for six months," he recalled. "Then I told my wife, 'I've got to do something.'"
So he signed up to substitute. He tried elementary schools, but one day of that was enough for him. Eventually, he settled on high schools. And he just kept going.
The pay is meager — just $65 a day — but Hilgart said substitute teaching is fun and it keeps him as young as he can be. Still a trim 120 pounds, he said, he has no intention of becoming an old retired fat guy. He isn't a golfer, doesn't like fishing and can't travel nonstop with his wife, Martha, no matter how much they love to go.
So he's set his sights on making it at least as long as his own dad did.
"My father lived to be 95," Hilgart said. "He had heart troubles, and so do I. But he kept working."
Gulf High leaders said they'll be ready to celebrate with him again five years from now.
"Gulf High has so many rich traditions, and it's important that we celebrate the milestones," principal Kim Davis said. Hilgart "means a lot, with 25 years in the community subbing and working with our kids. It's important that we recognize our heritage, where we've come from and where we want to go."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.