South Ward school is history

Fifth-grade teacher Katarina Focakovic packs up on the last day of classes at South Ward Elementary School. The oldest existing school in Pinellas closed its doors on Tuesday.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Fifth-grade teacher Katarina Focakovic packs up on the last day of classes at South Ward Elementary School. The oldest existing school in Pinellas closed its doors on Tuesday.

LARGO — Nearly 100 years ago, some locally famous people walked the halls of South Ward Elementary School and learned history, math and English in its classrooms.

Auto dealer Larry Dimmitt, 94, was among them.

The boys went barefoot, the girls wore long dresses. They dipped their pens in inkwells and did their share of sweating because there was no air conditioning.

Built in 1906, it was the first school in what was then western Hillsborough County, which is now, of course, Pinellas County.

But with enrollment down, it closed its doors forever Tuesday, and the future of the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is unclear.

Just the thought of demolishing such an important building saddens Mike Sanders, a local historian and Dimmitt's nephew.

Sanders attended South Ward in the late 1950s and loved it. He said he still remembers some of his teachers and vividly recalls hiding under his desk during bomb drills.

When it was first constructed, South Ward catered to all grades from kindergarten to 12th grade.

In 1912, a separate building was added to house the high school.

"I hope it isn't demolished,'' Sanders said. "A city that tears down buildings (on the National Register of Historic Places) has a problem. Most cities respect their historic structures.''

He believes it should be transformed into a fine arts center or a museum.

Sanders said the property has a long history.

In the 1870s, there was a log cabin school just south of where South Ward now stands.

In the 1880s, a larger wood school was constructed on the site.

Randall W. Rozelle, South Ward's last principal, 51, came to the school in 2001. He said working at the school has been "a wonderful experience.''

"There's so much history here,'' he said. "We have the luxury of having kids whose grandparents went here. It's kind of been a dream job.''

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

South Ward school is history 06/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 3:18pm]

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