Bill Price, a Dozier School for Boys survivor who helped secure the state's apology, dies at 70

Published June 1 2018
Updated June 1 2018

As a student at the Florida School for Boys in the 1960s, Bill Price tried to run away from the now-shuttered reform school notorious for decades of physical and sexual abuse.

But as an adult, Mr. Price ran toward his dark memories of the state-run institution. He believed that the horrors that occurred at the Marianna institution also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys should never be forgotten. Otherwise, he said, it could happen again.

In April 2017, when the state of Florida passed a resolution apologizing to all the boys who were abused at the reform school, it was due in large part to Price. It was an effort he helped lead while ill with cancer.

Mr. Price, a Valrico resident, died on May 27 of cancer. He was 70.

BACKSTORY: FGround Truth: In Dozier’s neglected cemetery, a search for lost boys and the reasons why they died

"Many of us have been wearing a blue gel band on our arm that says, ‘Bill Price’ on one side and ‘Never Give Up’ on the other," said Babbs Cooper, secretary of the Official White House Boys Organization, named for the reform school building where the abuse took place from the 1940s through the 1960s.

"He continued to fight cancer while he also fought for the White House Boys," Cooper said. "He never gave up."

More than anyone, Mr. Price was responsible for the state’s apology, said Jerry Cooper, Babbs’ husband and president of the Official White House Boys.

"The way he handled himself in meetings was very influential. He never lost his cool," said Jerry Cooper, a friend of Mr. Price — the organization’s vice-president — since their days together at the reform school. "We traveled thousands of miles together seeing politicians. Without him, it would not have happened."

BACKSTORY: For Their Own Good.

Mr. Price did not have an easy childhood. At age 14, he was living on his own in Tampa, according to his biography on the Official White House Boys website. His parents had decided to move to California but he stayed here.

"His step-father severely mistreated him," Jerry Cooper said.

In 1961, Mr. Price and some friends were arrested for stealing admission money from a Harlem Globetrotters game at Curtis Hixon Hall. Because his parents would not return to Tampa to claim him, Mr. Price was sent to the reform school.

At the Florida School for Boys, Price starred on the football and baseball team. But like many of the boys there, he was abused by personnel.

Still, Jerry Cooper said, "He was always up and never down. He helped us so much at that school because, no matter what, he always made us laugh."

Mr. Price tried to escape the campus twice. On one of those attempts, Jerry Cooper helped Mr. Price acquire print cleaning fluid. He soaked his shoes with it to confuse the dogs tracking his scent.

Mr. Price made it 50 miles before he was caught.

For punishment, he received more than 100 lashes but refused to disclose who helped him.

"When I stopped screaming they knew that I had become numb in those spots and moved to my legs and back to finish the beating," Mr. Price wrote on the Official White House Boys website.

It took three months for the wounds to heal, Jerry Cooper said.

"If you could have seen what we looked like after leaving the White House, you’d have wondered how we survived," he said.

Not everyone did.

School records showed that more than 100 students died while on campus and 31 were buried in its cemetery. But University of South Florida forensic anthropologists later uncovered 51 distinct unmarked graves on the campus.

"In spite of what happened to him, he worked hard and lived clean," said Janice Morris, who called Mr. Price the love of her life for the last 17 years. "He didn’t have a negative bone in his body."

Mr. Price graduated from Hillsborough High School, according to his Facebook page. Morris said that Mr. Price was a master mechanic, loved playing softball and golf and enjoyed leatherworking, antiques and old cars.

And he would often meet with boys who had survived similar hardship. He let them know that they were not alone, Babbs Cooper said.

The Coopers last visited Mr. Price at the hospital two weeks ago.

"I hugged him and whispered in his ear, ‘I want to thank you for always being there for me,’ " Jerry Cooper said. "He was a good man."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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