Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Cecile Essrig, first woman elected to Hillsborough School Board, dies

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."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Amy Scherzer can be reached at (813) 226-3332 or Jodie Tillman can be reached at or (813) 226-3374.


Cecile Waterman Essrig

Born: June 15, 1923

Died: June 29, 2012

Survivors: Daughters Katherine and Lee; son-in-law Kevin Napper and granddaughter Emma Napper

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Cecile Essrig, first woman elected to Hillsborough School Board, dies 06/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:05am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. KB Home cuts CEO's bonus after vulgar rant at Kathy Griffin (w/video)

    Real Estate

    NEW YORK — One of the nation's biggest homebuilders is putting its top executive on notice after a vulgar rant against comedian Kathy Griffin was caught on tape and went viral.

    Comic Kathy Griffin and KB Home CEO Jeffrey Mezger are neighbors. [Associated Press]
  2. Men of Vision get to work after Hurricane Irma


    Answering the call to action after the departure of Hurricane Irma, they cleaned up fallen branches in mid-Tampa neighborhoods and in Rowlett Park, where they toiled alongside Tampa city workers, and they came out in force to clean up the Hillsborough River, pulling out gas cans, trash cans, old tires and even a …

    hillsmov092217: The Men of Vision helped clean up Rowlett Park in the wake of Hurricane Irma last week. Photo courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Schools.
  3. Visitors get in free Saturday at Tampa Bay History Center


    Times staff

    TAMPA — Nothing to do Saturday? Go back in history.

    Machine gun at the ready, a paratrooper of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Brigade advances cautiously  near Hue, South Vietnam on April 3, 1968.
  4. MacDill chuckling as UFO website reports 'flying triangles' at base: Howard Altman


    My Twitter feed on MacDill Air Force Base has been out of this world lately.


    Michael Salla, who runs an extraterrestrial research website, claims these are images taken of UFOs near MacDill Air Force Base earlier this month. []
  5. Pittman: Why Irma drained the water from Tampa Bay


    Nobody could believe it. As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, Tampa Bay suddenly went dry. People hopped down onto the bay bottom, now a vast sandy expanse, and walked around, stunned.

    Scores of people walk on the sand of Tampa Bay along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Sept. 9. As Hurricane Irma approached, the water temporarily receded to an extreme level allowing people to walk on what used to be the waters of Tampa Bay. Tampa police later asked people to leave for their safety. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]