Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Education

Pasco Education Foundation's director leaves big shoes to fill

He can hit a golf ball 300 yards. Broad shoulders, good timing.

But you should see him in tights.

For years, Chip Wichmanowski (common spelling) has dressed in Shakespearean costume to announce the guests at the Cinderella Ball, the premier fundraiser for the Pasco Education Foundation. "Ladies and Gentleman,'' he wails so many times he grows hoarse, "Mr. and Mrs. (fill in the blank)."

It's colorful, theatrical, memorable — words that also describe the man who has meant so much to students and teachers in Pasco County for 37 years.

This is Wichmanowski's final week after 15 years as the nonprofit foundation's executive director. The school district's chief schmoozer, a salesman so successful because he loves what he's selling, is retiring at age 59 to try something else before it's too late.

It's fitting that his final act for the foundation is the annual golf tournament Monday at Lake Jovita. The first one, in 2000, raised $15,000 and Wichmanowski thought that was pretty good — especially considering heavy rain from Hurricane Gordon arrived just as players were teeing off. This year, in large part because he has built long-term relationships with corporate sponsors, the take is $76,000.

This reflects the overall success of the foundation since he took over. Assets have grown from $200,000 to nearly $4 million, enabling a school district in a tax-poor county to provide scholarships, classroom grants and money for teachers seeking to advance their education. The foundation is the lead agency for Take Stock in Children, which helps low-income students with good grades to attend college.

Wichmanowski remembers his first day on the job when somebody asked if he would be attending the Take Stock in Children meeting. "What's that?'' he asked. "That's how green I was. I was a teacher and school principal. I didn't know about this stuff.''

This year, 96 percent of the Take Stock students graduated. Wichmanowski wisely credits his board of directors and the program's manager, Rosanne Heyser. "She makes me look good,'' he said. "I have to say that about my entire staff. They believe in what we're doing.''

Wichmanowski has been the hand-shaker, the big personality expertly branding his "product'' and articulating its message — nothing is more important to our quality of life than a top-notch public education system. You want to attract businesses with good paying jobs? Better show a commitment to the schools.

At banquets recognizing academic achievement, Wichmanowski is a true master of ceremonies. He loves the stage, and even majored in theater at Florida State University before going into education. After one of his many performances at the Richey Suncoast Theatre, Music Man, our theater critic, Barbara Fredricksen, wrote that "he was the most charming Professor Harold Hill I've ever seen (including the movie).''

The recent death of his friend Charlie Skelton, managing director at Richey Suncoast, affected Wichmanowski as he considered professional options. He also thought about his dad, Henry Wichmanowski, the former principal at Cypress Elementary who was only 54 when he died in 1974. He had suffered head wounds in Italy during World War II when he stepped on a land mine. His son believes they eventually contributed to his brain disease.

"I think of him all the time,'' said Chip, whose given name is Henry. "I know life is short.''

He says he's not exactly sure what opportunities lie ahead, but he expects to use the same business development skills he cultivated with the foundation. He and wife, Debbie, assistant principal at Longleaf Elementary and the 1994 Pasco teacher of the year, put two children through college (Nick and Jamie) and have one still at home, Ali, a junior at River Ridge High.

"So we still have some work to do,'' he said.

Whatever jobs Wichmanowski might entertain, his application could never match the one he sent to his alma mater in Tallahassee in 1976. The university's president had launched a nationwide search for a new football coach and was quoted in the media that he wanted a really big name.

Wichmanowski is a big name, the cocky young man wrote. The framed rejection letter is about to come off his office wall, along with so many other memories of nearly four decades.

They'll miss that sense of humor at the school district complex, but Chip Wichmanowski won't be forgotten any time soon. He leaves the place better.

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