TAMPA — Paul R. Wharton started his career in a one-room schoolhouse in Kentucky.
He finished it in a leadership position in one of the largest school districts in the nation.
And it didn't end in 1985, when he retired as assistant superintendent. Years later, Mr. Wharton worked part time as a hearing officer for student expulsions. Well into his 90s, he advised a new generation of school administrators.
"He was asked to keep his hand in school affairs because they valued his opinions about a lot of things," said his son-in-law, Stephen Michelini.
At 94, Mr. Wharton was enjoying retirement. He would lunch with his children and former colleagues. He would take in sporting events.
Then, about a month ago, he suffered a gallbladder attack. Surgery followed, and recovery, then a setback about a week ago, Michelini said.
He died at 8 a.m. Tuesday at Memorial Hospital, Michelini said, surrounded by his family.
The loss was felt even among school officials too young to have worked with him directly.
Among Mr. Wharton's accomplishments: He established the school district's first nursing education program; was principal of Brewster Vocational School, Robinson High School and Plant High School; and supervised employees during the tumultuous years of teacher unrest and racial desegregation.
"He was an icon in the school system," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "He was just one of those people who was a mentor for so many people. He was one of those educators whose whole life was dedicated to it."
New Tampa's first high school was named for him. He maintained close ties with that school's former principal, Mitch Muley. He attended graduations and pep rallies. He followed the sports teams.
Although he never met Mr. Wharton, principal Bradley Woods knew his reputation.
"He was a great leader who cared about the kids," he said.
"He was very detail oriented. You toed the line. He held everybody accountable, whether it was a principal, an assistant principal, through every kid that he touched."
Born in Springfield, Ky., Mr. Wharton began his career teaching Grades 1-8 in a country school, according to a Hillsborough school district biography.
World War II brought him to Tampa, where he met his future wife, Lillian Roberts, who died in December. He settled down, raised two daughters and worked his way from teaching soldiers at Brewster Vocational to assistant superintendent. He held that post for close to 20 years.
No matter how sensitive the issue, Michelini said, Mr. Wharton could be relied upon to analyze a situation and exercise sound judgment.
"I think that he had tremendous organizational skills and he had the ability to see what the root of the problem was," Michelini said. "Not just the problem itself, but how did the problem occur, what started the problem? And he had a way of identifying the root and proposing and carrying out a solution. He was always a great listener and great counsel."
Lee Anderson, who is arranging the memorial for Blount & Curry Funeral Home, remembers him from Plant, where he graduated in 1966.
"He was a wonderful principal and a wonderful person," Anderson said. "He was upbeat and very nice." Though strict, "you could talk to him easily in the hallways," he said. "He didn't act like he was above the students."
As fond as Mr. Wharton was of the New Tampa school, he never lost his passion for Plant. While in the hospital, Michelini said, "he said the one thing he was missing was a Plant letter jacket."
The school obliged. Said Michelini, "he was beaming from ear to ear."
Visitation is scheduled Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Curry funeral home, 605 S MacDill Ave.
A memorial service will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 402 E Zack St. in downtown Tampa.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5307.