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Vyrle Davis: Pinellas educator dies at 76

ST. PETERSBURG — The men had come to the gray stucco home on Fairfield Avenue S to listen.

Three generations of Pinellas County's African-American leadership sat around the living-room table on that warm afternoon in May 2009. Vyrle Davis had invited them. Parkinson's disease had bound him to a wheelchair. He seldom left his house.

Kevin Gordon was among those men. He had just been named a finalist to become the new principal at failing Gibbs High. Mr. Davis sat up and looked at him. His words came slower than they once did.

"Kevin," Mr. Davis said, "you have to get that school under control."

Be firm, he told him. Be bold. Make those teenagers pull up their pants.

For Mr. Davis, an iconic advocate for education in Tampa Bay, it was one teaching moment in a lifetime of them that impacted thousands of young people — including accomplished teachers, government leaders and former Gov. Charlie Crist.

That teaching moment was also among his last. On Friday, after a decade with the disease, Mr. Davis died. He was 76.

"He was one of the most important figures in Pinellas County in the past 40 years," said Ray Arsenault, University of South Florida professor. "He was a sort of master mentor. He was a teacher in all the best senses of the word."

Teaching was in Mr. Davis' blood. His grandfather established the first school for black children in Jackson County. In the 1940s, his mother taught black students, including him, in a one-room schoolhouse in the area now known as Citrus Park.

He attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University before he began teaching at 16th Street Elementary and Junior High in 1960, the same year he married his wife, Mozell. Teachers at black schools back then were each expected to raise $25 for students' pencils and paper. To earn the money, he sold his wife's chicken sandwiches.

Urban League president Watson Haynes and state Rep. Darryl Rouson were among his students. He dressed impeccably, almost always in a suit and tie with a handkerchief in his shirt pocket. He knew all the kids' names, their classes and where they should be. He seldom raised his voice. He didn't have to.

"You didn't buck up to Vyrle Davis," Rouson said. "You bucked down."

Both men attribute much of their success to his influence.

"Vyrle," Haynes said, "was an educator's educator."

Mr. Davis was named assistant principal at Gibbs High in 1971 and two years later became principal at St. Petersburg High. Crist was one of his favorites.

"Mr. Davis is a great beacon of hope and light and integrity, and all the things that are right in the world," Crist said in a tribute years later.

His rise through a mostly white academia was not without struggle.

Before one graduation at St. Petersburg High, someone scrawled the N-word across the football field. He received racist phone calls late at night. People threatened him. "You just come on," he would say. "I'll be there."

In 1986, he became the county's first black area superintendent, a job he held until his retirement in 1995.

Really, though, he never retired.

He had founded the Ebony Scholars program in 1984. It provides institutional and financial support to high-achieving African-American students. He raised thousands every year to support it. Organizers estimate the program has given students more than $500,000.

In the 1990s, he recruited a new generation and founded organizations that advanced black political and educational causes. He and other activists engineered the single-member legislative districts, which helped minorities get elected in their own neighborhoods. He was instrumental in the campaign of Mary Brown, the county's first black elected School Board member. Mr. Davis advised Ken Welch before he ran for County Commission in 2000.

"Vyrle was an icon in so many ways," Welch said. "He's just been one of those giants in our community."

Around 2004, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and a lifetime of doing was no more.

He couldn't attend meetings so they came to him, like that one in 2009. Even those didn't last. His mind didn't fade, but his words did. He couldn't raise hell. He could barely speak at all. A doctor prescribed him antidepressants and sleeping pills. His frustration grew. His efforts dwindled.

But that community of young people that he taught didn't leave him. They gave him awards and plaques that he couldn't hold. They stopped by and sat with him. Sometimes, they left messages. His caretakers would hold the phone to his ear so he could listen. "Two" for save. "Three" for delete.

His legacy, he realized in those final years, was all around him.

"It's nice," he would say, "not to be forgotten."

Times staff writer Sandra Gadsden contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Career highlights

1960: Married Mozell Reese, began teaching at 16th Street Elementary and Junior High School (now John Hopkins Middle School)

1971-73: Assistant principal, Gibbs High School

1973-83: Principal, St. Petersburg High School

1983-86: Operations director, Pinellas County schools

1984: Founded Ebony Scholars motivational program

1991: Founded Ebony Scholars Academic Club

1986-1995: Area school superintendent

1996: Co-founded African-American Voters Registration and Education Committee

1998: Founded Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students

Vyrle Davis: Pinellas educator dies at 76 02/02/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 11:54pm]
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