TAMPA— Vince Sussman doesn't know how he'll follow up a 36-year career with Hillsborough County school district, but judging by his retirement party, he'll always be surrounded by admirers.
Colleagues, friends and former students alternately teased and praised the former Plant High principal and football coach left a quadriplegic after a fall from the roof of his North Tampa home in June 1997.
Eight weeks later, he was back in charge, running the school from a motorized wheelchair and voice-activated computer.
"I knew from the time I woke up in the hospital I was going back to work,'' said Sussman, who began at Plant as a physical education teacher and assistant football coach in 1973. He became assistant principal in 1989 and principal in 1993.
Since July 2000, he has been the district's director of resource management, responsible for multimillion dollar construction budgets. Today is Sussman's last day.
"You've been a legend,'' said chief facilities manager Cathy Valdes, his boss of three years, at Monday's gathering at the Maintenance Operations depot.
"Suss is good at everything he ever did,'' said deputy superintendent Ken Otero, noting Plant earned two Blue Ribbon School of Excellence awards with Sussman as principal. The men have been friends since meeting at Plant in 1975.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia presented to Sussman a commemorative clock, thanking him for implementing a comprehensive database of thousands of safety issues at 250 sites. The former defensive tackle for Kansas State Teachers College now excels as "a computer person,'' she said.
Elia left the "roasting" of 59-year-old Sussman to some former Plant coaches, including Otero, Darlee Nelson, Bob Fyfe, Vernon Kohrn and Steve Coleman, plus retired social studies teacher Frank Perez.
Their tales — of bruising golf games, arguments in the school's Sugar Shack concession stand and side businesses installing sprinklers and carports — had the room roaring with laughter. Nelson remembered how their favorite restaurant owner would pretend to be closed if he saw the two of them, both big eaters, coming.
Sussman said he and his wife, Meg, who is also retiring after 22 years teaching at Forest Hills Elementary in North Tampa, are looking forward to sleeping past 4:30 a.m. They had to awake so early to give Meg enough time to help dress and feed him.
"I'll take a month or so to relax, then I will do something,'' he said. "I can't just stay home and watch TV."
One date on his calendar is the 12th annual Vince Sussman Golf Tournament set for Jan. 23 at Rocky Point Golf Course, organized by Jimmy Kalamaras, Plant High class of '78. Proceeds help with Sussman's medical expenses.
"Working helped my mental abilities,'' said Sussman, who has regained enough hand movement to control his wheelchair joystick.
"I've been very fortunate,'' he continued, with the support of his wife and the school system, "not to look back or brood, but to play the best cards dealt to us.''
Guests lingered over punch and cakes topped with icing ducks like the decoys he collects. They called his attitude inspirational. He said he was just stubborn.
"There's a little bit of Suss in everyone of us,'' Otero said.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.