Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

Land O'Lakes hall of fame to honor renowned surgeon

John Childers and Jerry Brewster thought they knew pretty much everything about their hometown. But when they sat down at Mosquito Grill & Bar last month with veteran coaches from Land O'Lakes High School to consider who should be the first named to its athletics hall of fame, they were amazed to learn about a 1979 graduate now recognized among the nation's best doctors.

"Google him,'' ordered John Benedetto, the legendary football coach.

They typed Dr. Kenneth McCurry's name into a computer and scrolled through his biography: board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon at the renowned Cleveland Clinic, specializing in heart and lung transplants; former director of heart-lung transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh; twice honored as one of the top surgeons in the United States; prolific researcher and author for leading medical journals.

McCurry, 51, was a perfect choice for one particular award Childers and Brewster had envisioned when they created an athletic foundation for their alma mater and thought up the idea of a hall of fame. "We wanted someone who played sports, sure, but also went on to do something fantastic for society.''

It's been more than 30 years since he left town, so McCurry's not surprised that few people here remember him. But those who do describe a serious, focused young man who excelled in physics and other difficult subjects. He was the team captain his senior year as the Gators finished 7-4 for their first winning season. He played linebacker and offensive guard. Teammate Mike Williams, now an accountant for the Pasco school district, said the players shattered stereotypes. "We had a bunch of National Honor Society students,'' he said. "And Ken might have been the smartest.''

Dennis Blankenship, 51, is vice president of engineering for telecommunications giant Ericsson Corp. in San Jose, Calif. He worked five years as a software engineer on the space shuttle program with Lockheed. In 1980, his senior year at Land O'Lakes High, he was the most valuable player for the football and basketball teams. Last week he recalled Coach Benedetto pointing out Ken McCurry as an example of why football players should spend time in the weight room.

"He told Ken to pull off his shirt,'' Blankenship said. "He had added a good deal of muscle.''

McCurry came to town as a seventh-grader. His father, Kenneth Arthur McCurry, moved regularly as a heavy machinery operator for construction companies. His mother, Anna Elizabeth, worked several years in the high school cafeteria.

"She was a great woman, a great mom,'' McCurry said in a phone interview last week. "She would bring Gatorade to the football team during practice, so all the players will remember her. In my senior year, the team gave her a special plaque.''

Mrs. McCurry died last year. Her husband lives in the Citrus Park area.

After graduating from high school, McCurry commuted to classes at the University of South Florida and earned money stocking shelves at the local U-Save grocery store.

He transferred to Georgia Tech thinking he might like to be an engineer but soon turned his interest to medicine and the University of Florida medical school. He did residency in general surgery at the University of Michigan, spending 1995 on a research fellowship at Duke University Medical Center.

McCurry is married (Lisa) and has three boys (11, 13 and 14) and a daughter (9). "I keep pretty busy,'' he said.

When he committed to attend the induction dinner Tuesday night at the school's Culinary Arts Center, he got out his 1979 yearbook and enjoyed a laugh with Lisa over his long blond hair. "That was the style back then,'' he said. "A lot has changed.''

Brewster and Childers expect to raise $40,000 for the school's athletic programs through donations and auctions. Other graduates joining the hall of fame are Colleen Bentz Sanders (1987), Tim Harvey (1979) and Robert Shirmohammad (1988). Henry Walls, the athletic director when the school opened in 1975, will also be inducted.

Anybody familiar with John Benedetto might wonder why he isn't included. He coached the varsity football team from 1977 to 2008, retiring with more victories than any other coach in Pasco County, including 13 district championships. Generations of players considered him a father figure. The football stadium bears his name.

Brewster explained: "We figured Coach Benedetto was a natural to be first, but at that meeting he insisted it should be Henry Walls, who helped build this place. Naturally we respected the coach's point of view.''

Five days later, on April 23, Coach Benedetto died in his sleep at age 66. He'll be honored during the program Tuesday and join the hall of fame next year.

"I was saddened to hear he had died,'' McCurry said. "I remember him and the other coaches fondly. They provided inspiration and taught us all, certainly me, the value of hard work and team work. They were good people.''

Creating the athletic foundation has been a labor of love for Brewster and Childers, who graduated in 1986. They both grew up poor but went on to success in business. "The high school gave me the outlet I needed,'' said Childers, who owns JC III & Associates, a mortgage due diligence firm in Tampa with 600 employees. "I still hang out with 50 guys I went to school with from the eighth grade on. That kind of defines Land O'Lakes for me, a tight-knit community.''

Brewster, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, agreed. "We've remained close to our school,'' he said. "We wanted to give something back. This is just the start.''

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