ELFERS — In Mittye P. Locke's school, children stood in straight lines, minded their manners and kept their hands to themselves.
And when they did not? Well, they had to face Mrs. Locke — and possibly her famous wooden paddle known as "Excalibur."
" 'I'd go, 'Mrs. Locke, you must've beat me a million times,'" former student Dewey Mitchell, now a well-known real estate agent, recalled with a chuckle. "And she'd say, 'And there were a bunch more times that I missed!' "
Mrs. Locke, a prominent educator whose school bears her name and whose son is Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Olson, died Wednesday (Feb. 25, 2009).
She was 99 years old, less than two months shy of her 100th birthday.
Mrs. Locke served as principal of what was previously called Elfers Elementary School from 1937 until 1979 and also taught fifth and sixth grades for many of those years.
She is remembered as a friendly but stern educator who shaped young lives through her high expectations — and her devotion.
"She was a warm, generous, caring person," said Mitchell. "Discipline is not a bad thing, especially when you know people care."
County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand's son, who attended the Elfers school, spent his first four years of elementary school in a leg brace. Hildebrand recalled how much Mrs. Locke personally looked after him.
"She took a special consideration for children with challenges," said Hildebrand, whose son went on to become a teacher himself. "He still talks about her."
Educating children was everything to Mrs. Locke, a 1927 Gulf High School graduate who lived nearly her entire life in Elfers.
She first taught at Zephyrhills Elementary School, then at the one-room Tucker School, near Gowers Corner.
"I was only making $80 a month, and it was hard to work and continue my studies on that kind of income," she once told an interviewer, according to the fivay.org Web site. "So I came back home to Elfers. I did what I had always wanted to do — teach in the school and community I had grown up in."
Elfers was a small citrus field community then, with unpaved roads, a post office, school and general store. Mrs. Locke, as the principal who lived only a block away from her school, played a central role in that community. Someone once called her "the law of Elfers."
She had a sense of humor about that tough reputation. Henry Fletcher, who served as music director at Locke, said he and another teacher were once eating lunch in the cafeteria when it got very noisy. Mrs. Locke came in, clapped her hands and the children turned silent.
For some reason, Fletcher and his friend got tickled and started laughing in the otherwise quiet cafeteria. All of the children whirled around and stared at them.
"She walked over to us and made us stand up," he said, laughing, "like she was going to paddle us."
Roots run deep
Fletcher and others say Mrs. Locke always supported her teachers. Her reputation was known among educators far beyond west Pasco, said Dennis Taylor, who succeeded her as principal. Taylor recalled going to teacher conventions around the state and saying he was from Pasco County.
"Then you must know Mittye P. Locke?" people would ask.
The school's name was changed from Elfers Elementary to Mittye P. Locke in 1983. Olson, who was a county commissioner at the time, said the change came as a complete surprise to his mother.
She was a little embarrassed, he said, but thought it would be rude to ask the School Board to change it back. "She was modest, but she was pragmatic," he said.
Mrs. Locke divorced Olson's father, a local politician and former New Port Richey police chief. She married Floyd Locke, who later died of lung cancer.
She wasn't the first in her family to have a school named for her. Her father, a School Board member named Porter Lamar Pierce, was the namesake for Pierce Elementary School, which was located where New Port Richey City Hall is now. (And when Mrs. Locke attended Elfers Elementary as a young girl, her teacher was Velora Pierce — her older sister.)
The loss of someone with such deep roots in Pasco County holds a poignant significance for her son.
"Before we were here, before most of us thought about moving here, her heart was beating," he said. "And it quit. For the first time in nearly 100 years that heart is silent. It's just amazing."
Mrs. Locke, who lived with Olson and his wife, Mary, had been failing in health in recent years. She suffered a series of mini strokes that left her disoriented for short periods of time.
Whenever she got in that confused state, she would always return to her past love. Once, during a hospital stay, she curled one of her hands and tried to lift her arm, as if she were holding a piece of chalk and writing on a blackboard.
In recent weeks, she had been talking about school again. One night two weeks ago, Mrs. Locke, who had been using a wheelchair, got out of her bed, went into the closet and put on her shoes. She was going somewhere. She thought she was going to school.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.