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Tampa Middle School teacher who served four presidents to retire after sharing his life experiences with kids

CARROLLWOOD — A distinguished-looking gentleman in a tie and slacks roams the halls of Sligh Middle School each day, imparting wisdom to students in one of the city's most challenging schools.

It's an odd picture: 79-year-old William B. Robertson, a history teacher who wears cuff links and has served four U.S. presidents, mingling with kids wearing braces and struggling to push past adolescence.

Yet, despite his impressive resume, Robertson believes these kids have potential that outshines his own. That's why he's here.

"They can go much farther than I can go, and they can go much farther than I ever dreamed of going," said Robertson, who lives in Carrollwood. "That's the reason I teach."

Soon, however, this leg of his mission will be over. Robertson will retire in May to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren. He will leave behind a legacy that school officials say surpasses Sligh's walls — let alone Tampa's city limits.

"He's just really special," said assistant principal Manuschka Michaud. "He's very iconic and he shares his life stories with his kids."

• • •

Robertson's story began in Roanoke, Va., where he grew up with parents who stressed education. Black, living in the segregated South where public drinking fountains were labeled according to race, Robertson's world might have been limited if not for his teachers. They spent summers in New York City, returning to tell students stories about baseball games and operas and a world bigger than Jim Crow.

"Negro history wasn't something you talked about in February," Robertson said. "It was incorporated into American history."

In August 1950, he enrolled at Bluefield State College in West Virginia where, at registration, he learned he didn't have enough tuition money.

Thumbing a ride to the train station to return home, Robertson was picked up by a man who asked for his story. The man listened, pulled over and told Robertson he was the school's president. He arranged for Robertson to get a dining hall meal and a night of sleep in a dormitory. He told him to show up in his office the next morning.

The next day, the president enrolled Robertson, gave him tuition assistance and a job.

"That was providential," Robertson said.

It motivated him to make the most of his opportunity.

But after graduating with a degree in secondary education in 1954, the only job he could find was sweeping cigarette butts and receipts from a drug store floor.

He returned to college to earn another degree, this time in elementary education. It paid off — he taught fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders for eight years.

In 1965, Robertson was asked to help integrate the faculty of a junior high. He did so well, the Roanoke Jaycees civic organization gave him its teacher of the year award and asked him to become the group's first African-American member.

With the Jaycees, Robertson started a recreation program for mentally disabled children that included bowling, skating, arts and crafts. The state noted the program's success and made him its state chairman on issues regarding the developmentally disabled.

Robertson eventually pitched an idea of creating a camp for the special-needs population and proposed raising money for it by selling 15-cent jars of apple jelly for $1.

The Jaycees sold the jelly, raising $23,000 more than their goal. Camp Virginia Jaycee was born.

The camp is still operating four decades later and more than 42,000 special-needs campers have attended since it began.

• • •

Robertson's career in government began in 1970 when he was appointed special assistant for minority economic development under Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton, becoming the first African-American to serve on a governor's staff.

He helped Virginia hire its first black troopers, toll takers, liquor inspectors and, after helping put down a prison riot, its first black prison administrators.

The experience launched his federal career.

President Richard Nixon appointed Robertson to the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation. President Gerald Ford appointed him director of the Peace Corps in Kenya. President Ronald Reagan made him assistant director of the Office of Economic Development and deputy assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, which sent him to 65 countries.

President George H.W. Bush gave him a role in the Take Pride in America partnership program, which cleaned up parks and waterways.

Between presidential posts, he worked in the private sector, once helping American book manufacturers bring a million new books to the children of apartheid in South Africa.

• • •

Robertson retired — the first time — in 2002 at age of 69.

But he couldn't sit still.

"I'm so accustomed to getting up and going to work I would get up and put on my suit and tie and go to Borders Books," he said.

He attended a Hillsborough County School District teachers fair and soon joined Sligh Middle School to start his current career, teaching much of the history that he lived through.

He also remained involved with Camp Virginia Jaycee, bringing special education teachers from South Africa, Kenya and Sierra Leone to learn how to create similar camps.

About five years ago, he began flying about eight to 10 Sligh students and three or four teachers to Roanoke to serve as junior counselors at the camp. Robertson also takes the middle schoolers on a day trip to his nearby alma mater, Bluefield State College, which houses the William B. Robertson Collection of his awards, papers, speeches and photos.

With 94 percent of Sligh students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, the trips are the first many ever take.

"Most of them have never made it out of Tampa," assistant principal Michaud said, "and it has touched all of them in some way."

Robertson pays for most of the trip — but he does charge the students $50, which goes toward paying the camp fees of a special-needs camper.

"The whole concept is for those kids to understand they owe so much to so many," he said.

That much he realized while living through segregation, seeing the sacrifices of others open doors for him to achieve great heights.

And it's one reason he's been giving back for so long.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.

Tampa Middle School teacher who served four presidents to retire after sharing his life experiences with kids 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 4:30am]
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