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Former Lacoochee Elementary student stands tall at school

Jamie Lopey, the boy, moon-walked across the Lacoochee Elementary School media center. He wanted to be just like Michael Jackson, but all that jiving ran him afoul of authority and, as such, his no-nonsense grandmother.

Jamie Lopey, the man, stood at the front of that same media center last week. On the wall above a bounty of eggs and grits and bacon and homemade goodies, a projector flashed images of his smiling face: Jamie graduating from Pasco High, Jamie the expert fisherman hoisting a largemouth bass, Jamie with his babies.

And as all the teachers and principals and guests expressed love and cheered his name, that grandmother sat in the front row and nodded her approval.

"He's done all right,'' said Johnnie Mae Lopey. "I'm proud of him.''

Lopey, 37, is one of five custodians at the school, which means officially he does a lot of cleaning, hauling trash and chasing away stray dogs. But his peers chose to honor him as the school's non-instructional employee of the year for reasons beyond those spelled out in his job description.

In this close-knit community, at this school where 96 percent of the 416 pupils get free meals because they fall below the government's poverty line, Lopey is a role model.

"This is honest work,'' he says, "and I'm grateful to have my job and to know that people at my school think I am good at it. Plus, this is my school. It's always been my school.''

That attitude and loyalty inspired those who have worked with Lopey since his hiring three years ago. They arranged for him to arrive at the school at 8:30 a.m. Monday atop a boat hitched to a pickup truck. In further recognition of his fishing prowess, they held bamboo poles to form an archway as Jamie and his family made their way toward the media center.

Renee Sedlack led the school from 1982-93 and has always held the community close to her heart. She enjoyed recalling the old days with Jamie, a precocious kid who found his share of mischief. And when he did, Mrs. Sedlack knew what to do.

"I called Johnnie Mae,'' she said, "and she was at the school in a flash. When Jamie saw her coming, the tears started. He knew she meant business.''

Johnnie Mae watched out for many of the kids in Lacoochee, where trouble is often just around the corner. Her roots are deep in the tiny northeast Pasco community that once thrived until the lumber mill shut down 40 years ago. Her twin brother, Jim "Mudcat'' Grant, made it out because he could throw a baseball better than almost anyone else, which is why he's in the Hall of Fame.

Johnnie Mae drove a school bus for 28 years. Kids stayed in their seats. Jamie got special attention.

"She was always harder on me than the others,'' he said. "If I opened my mouth, she'd move me up to the front seat.''

After Jamie started high school, he found other influences — not so positive. But the same qualities that Mrs. Sedlack had seen in the little boy at Lacoochee Elementary also impressed the sheriff's deputy assigned to Pasco High School. Cpl. Dave Hink, now a 24-year veteran of the department, made sure he didn't miss the celebration for the man he now calls a friend.

"When he saw me with the wrong crowd, he ran me off,'' Lopey said, throwing his arm around the much larger deputy.

When the custodian job came open, Lopey had just been laid off at the Pasco recycling center. Hink called with this forceful reference: "You won't find a better person for the job, period.''

Lopey never stopped smiling as he listened to testimonials. Principal Shirley Ray presented him a miniature red sneaker, symbolic of his "going the extra mile for children.'' With his wife, Shnec, and their three children beside him, he hugged Mrs. Sedlack and Johnnie Mae, who at 76 retired just two weeks ago from her 14-year job with Beall's in Zephyrhills.

"These women wouldn't let me fail,'' he said. "If I can do the same for just one child at my school, I'll be successful.''

Former Lacoochee Elementary student stands tall at school 05/05/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 1:13pm]
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