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54th Avenue Elementary School students reunite in St. Petersburg

Forty fresh-faced kids look out from the black and white photograph, an array of checks and plaids in a classroom of wooden desks.

Fast-forward 56 years. A small group of men and women point and exclaim at sixth-grade versions of themselves.

There's Robert Koch. He used to play Lady of Spain on his accordion. Bonnie Hood's family owned Hood's Dairy, where field trips meant free chocolate milk. George Hieber II became a state legislator.

So it went as members of the 1953-54 elementary school class reminisced Sunday at a St. Petersburg Cracker Barrel restaurant. The spot was chosen for its proximity to their beloved 54th Avenue Elementary School, since rebuilt and renamed John M. Sexton Elementary School.

Now in their late 60s, the small group of men and women — some joined by their spouses — had come together from points near and far.

"The friends I had at 54th Elementary were important to me,'' said Koch, an architect who drove from Winter Park with his wife, Joanne.

"I always felt that we were brothers and sisters,'' said Bob Counts, owner of Counts Hardware on Haines Road, the business his father started 75 years ago.

As one, the 54th Avenue Elementary School classmates spoke of an idyllic time. They lived in the same developing community, attended the same neighborhood school, sought adventure in nearby palmetto stands and often slogged through the snake-laden swamp.

"We would pretend we were going on jungle hikes. Someone would take a machete for the snakes,'' said Audrey Siess Erbes, who organized the gathering from her California home.

"We played kick ball in the streets. We climbed trees. We played hopscotch,'' remembered Joyce Alcott Hail, an LPN who lives in Pinellas Park.

The classmates also told stories about their sixth-grade teacher, Miss Emma Paulson. Miss Paulson, who died at age 87 in 1977, downed raw eggs in the morning.

"We said prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and then she would break out the eggs,'' said Clinton Smith, who retired after 43 years of work at area golf courses.

"And have one of us clean the glass,'' said Ray Muncy of Seminole, who is retired from government jobs and the Florida National Guard.

Recalled Bonnie Hood Best, "Her breakfast made me want to throw up every morning.''

But they loved her.

"She was somebody who made a difference in our lives. We were her children,'' said Jane Deeg Baker, an environmentalist from Seminole.

Principal John Waters was also influential in their lives. His son, Neil, was in their class. Wilmer LaBrant's mother was the boys' softball coach and Jim Taber's mom was the Cub Scouts' den mother.

The reunion at Cracker Barrel was the second major gathering of the elementary class. The restaurant sits on former Hood property.

"I used to live right here,'' Best said.

LaBrant, who worked for Honeywell, lived across the street where a Comfort Inn now stands.

"One of the excitements of some evenings was when the mosquito control trucks would run through the neighborhood spraying DDT .... My brothers and I as well as other neighborhood kids took delight in getting on our bikes and following the truck through the thick DDT-laced fog,'' he said in an e-mail.

Erbes organized the first elementary class gathering after failing to persuade Counts to attend their Northeast High School reunion. He would prefer a get-together with their elementary school class, he said.

Erbes, who went on to earn a doctorate in political science, took up the challenge. She turned to George Hieber, a four-term state representative from St. Petersburg, for help.

"He knew everybody. I called him up and I said, 'You've got to help me here,' '' she said.

Hieber, a onetime chairman of the Republican Party of Pinellas County, died three months after that first gathering. Three other classmates who were there, Betsy Diodato Owens, Neil Waters and Eleanor Stocky, also have died. It's the reason Koch drove from Winter Park. He said he didn't want to miss the opportunity to reconnect with his classmates.

"It was an enjoyable time. Just a time to relax. No pressure. No pretense,'' LaBrant said. "It was sort of a short-lived rejuvenation of a separate time, of an innocent time in our lives.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

54th Avenue Elementary School students reunite in St. Petersburg 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 5:37pm]
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