TAMPA — Cecile Essrig, the first woman elected to the Hillsborough School Board and a quiet but powerful voice during the contentious days of integration, died Friday. She was 89.
Mrs. Essrig, who was elected to the board in 1967 and served 21 years, was born into a prominent Tampa family. Her father, Jerome Waterman, the nephew of Isaac and Abe Maas, became president of Maas Brothers, once the largest department store south of Jacksonville.
But her parents believed privilege came with responsibility, Mrs. Essrig's friends and family said. Her mother, Daisy, was a well-known community volunteer, and the Daisy G. Waterman Lighthouse for the Blind on W Platt Street bears her name.
"She believed strongly in community and giving of herself to others," said former County Commissioner Jan Platt, who first met Mrs. Essrig in the early 1960s when Mrs. Essrig was president of the Girl Scouts Council.
When Mrs. Essrig ran for School Board in 1967, she didn't make much of the fact that she'd be the first woman, recalled Platt.
"She wasn't a women's lib type," Platt said. "She saw a need and thought she could make a difference."
Still, she earned the admiration of the women who followed her lead in the next few years.
"She got a lot of things done in a very quiet manner, never exerted pressure on any one," said former state Sen. Helen Gordon Davis, who became the first woman from Hillsborough County in the Florida Legislature in 1974.
Hillsborough clerk of courts Pat Frank served on the School Board with Mrs. Essrig during the early 1970s.
She said Mrs. Essrig was a strong advocate for integration at a time when it wasn't popular with everyone.
"She made her voice loud and clear," said Frank.
Mrs. Essrig's daughter, Katherine, said Friday that she had recently found some of her mother's speeches from the 1960s and 1970s.
"The common theme was inclusion and civil rights," said Katherine Essrig, 55, now a Hillsborough circuit judge. "She cared about treating everybody respectfully."
She didn't like conflict but wasn't afraid to stand up for what she thought was right, said daughter Lee Essrig.
Many times, the votes were 6-1, such as whether to allow long hair on boys.
"She was the only board member who voted for that," Lee Essrig said.
Mrs. Essrig did not make many headlines over the years, and her former colleagues say that's not surprising. She was studious, reviewing materials in great detail and asking a lot of questions.
"She was a quiet leader. She didn't make a lot of fuss," said former schools superintendent Walt Sickles.
Mrs. Essrig came up with the idea of a student forum at School Board meetings — known then as "rap sessions"— when kids could talk about their concerns with board members, recalled Earl Lennard, another former schools superintendent who now serves as Hillsborough elections supervisor.
"She was very focused on students," he said.
Long after Mrs. Essrig left the board, she still attended the annual student forums. She stopped going just a few years ago.
A Carrollwood elementary school was named for Mrs. Essrig in 1987, something she did not initially like.
"She said that was for the dead or famous and she had no intention of being either any time soon," said daughter Lee, 61.
Board members insisted, despite her protests, and she quickly became part of the Essrig Elementary family.
"They included her in everything they did," her daughter Katherine said. "She went out there regularly and at the end of the year always gave out the Cecile Essrig award for student excellence. The kids came running to meet her, and she just loved it."
Sometimes it was Mrs. Essrig's style — and her ability to roll with the punches — that made the news. In 1988, the then St. Petersburg Times wrote a story about the good-natured but sometimes biting banter between the reserved Mrs. Essrig and an outspoken colleague, the late Sam Rampello. Some observers said then that the teasing could turn unprofessional, but Mrs. Essrig disagreed.
"If we tried to sit up there and run 140 schools without having a sense of humor, and adding a little levity, none of us could stay on that board," Mrs. Essrig said then. "We get stuffy, and we're just no fun to be with."