Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Contractor's return from Iraq surprises Hernando middle school



Fifteen-year-old Eric Blanco and his 13-year-old sister, Justice, stood on stage in Fox Chapel Middle School's cafeteria on Monday for what was billed as a short interview with the school's mascot — a large white tiger with black stripes and big hairy paws.

Eric was supposed to be the tiger's "trainer." Justice was holding a school T-shirt.

But all was not as it seemed.

Hidden inside the sweltering mascot costume was their stepfather, 46-year-old Walter Southard, who had returned home from Iraq for good after more than five years as a contractor. Southard had been stationed near Baghdad International Airport, and it was his job as a firefighter/EMT to fight fires and support military personnel — sometimes under the threat of incoming gunfire and mortar rounds.

His three stepkids — Eric, Justice and 8-year-old Nathaneal Duncan — hadn't seen Southard since June. They didn't know he was back home. They didn't know he was done with that distant country.

"A lot of you might be wondering what the big fuss is today," principal Ray Pinder said to those in the packed lunchroom, launching the ruse.

He quieted the room and started the fictitious question-and-answer session.

"Are you glad you're in tiger country?" he asked the mascot.

The tiger pumped its hands in the air to raucous applause.

"Does that fur that you have to wear all year get hot in the summer?" Pinder asked next.

The tiger gave an animated nod of its head.

Then Pinder got down to the meat of the interview.

"Are you ever allowed to reveal your true identity as the Fox Chapel mascot?"

The mascot shook its head. The students protested.

With Eric and Justice still standing on the stage, Pinder urged on the cheering crowd of middle school students. Then he gave the cue.

"Without further ado, let's meet the Fox Chapel mascot we've been waiting to find out about!" he yelled.

Cheers — and a little confusion — erupted as Southard yanked off the tiger head to reveal his true identity and sweaty bald head.

Eric and Justice were stunned. Realizing what had happened, they went up to him and hugged him. Tears flowed. Cameras clicked and videotape rolled. Those in the crowd grew louder as what happened dawned on them.

Southard said he is happy to be back with his family for good, to be done with a trying chapter of his life — and to be out of that tiger costume.

"I was thinking it was a lot like Iraq," Southard quipped. "It was really hot and sticky."

Danny Valentine can be reached at or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Contractor's return from Iraq surprises Hernando middle school 03/31/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2014 11:07pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays waste repeated opportunities in 5-3 loss to Blue Jays

    The Heater

    TORONTO — Rays manager Kevin Cash made a case for urgency before Thursday's game, in both actions and words, making significant changes to the structure of the lineup and sincere comments about time running short.

    Trevor Plouffe of the Rays reacts as he pops out with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. [Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images]
  2. Spanish PM voices solidarity with Barcelona


    BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says his country is mourning in solidarity with the city of Barcelona and other cities in Europe that have been hit by deadly extremist attacks.

    An injured person is treated in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 after a white van jumped the sidewalk in the historic Las Ramblas district, crashing into a summer crowd of residents and tourists and injuring several people, police said. [Associated Press]
  3. Confederate statue: Why Bucs, Lightning, Rays took a stand


    They didn't want another Charlottesville.

    Marc Rodriguez, a member of the "Florida Fight for $15" organization, stands in protest along with other activists demanding the Confederate  monument be removed from the old Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  4. Rep. Larry Ahern gets roughed up by Clearwater City Council

    State Roundup

    It seemed innocuous enough: an "end of session report" from state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, to the Clearwater City Council.

    Then Ahern got taken to the woodshed.

    Rep. Larry Ahern is vying for a seat on the Pinellas commission.
  5. Hillsborough County erects wooden barrier to protect Confederate monument from vandalism

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Hillsborough County workers began constructing a wooden barrier around the base of the Confederate monument by the old county courthouse Thursday evening.

    A Hillsborough County construction crew erects a wooden barrier around the Confederate monument at the old county courthouse Thursday, out of concern about potential vandalism. [Courtesy of WTSP]