ST. PETERSBURG — Over 33 years as a Pinellas County educator, Eric Whitted was often called a dreamer.
Some meant to compliment him; others to dismiss his ideas.
In any case, when the school district needed leadership, it turned to him. In the 1960s, Mr. Whitted served as the first principal of Azalea Junior High (now Azalea Middle), then played the same role at Lakewood High.
Mr. Whitted, a descendant of a historic family who made some history of his own, died Jan. 20, of melanoma. He was 88.
"He was very progressive, way ahead of his time," said Michael Whitted, 62, his son. "Sometimes it was a good point and sometimes it was a bad point."
Either way, most of his ideas at least got an airing, with or without the district's help. At Azalea, Mr. Whitted started a language lab funded by the Business and Professional Women's Club; and started voluntary Saturday morning sessions that featured a mock trial with real lawyers and student jurors, political debates and live orchestral music.
He experimented with class schedules at Lakewood, cutting 55-minute periods in half to allow bright students to race ahead of their curricula. He could be garrulous or gruff, calmly logical or explosive. The same administrator who swung a paddle made in shop class also admonished parents that the most important commodity they had to offer was love.
"A chance to govern themselves, allowing them to keep their individuality, will bring respect," he told a PTA meeting in 1966. With adults, Mr. Whitted tried to overcome what he called the "RC factor," or resistance to change.
Eric Albert Whitted was born in St. Petersburg in 1926. He was the great-grandson of Zephania Phillips, a Union Army veteran and the first permanent settler on Pass-a-Grille. St. Petersburg's downtown airport is named for his uncle, Navy Lt. James Albert Whitted.
After graduating from St. Petersburg High in 1944, Mr. Whitted served two years as a second lieutenant in the Army, stationed in Korea. He graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in psychology and married Elizabeth Thorp in 1950. After a teaching stint in Norman, Okla., he returned to St. Petersburg in 1955.
He taught at Northeast High before moving to administration. Mr. Whitted served as the principal of Lealman Junior High, then as Azalea's first principal in 1964.
In 1966, he was principal of a new Lakewood High. Members of the school's athletics booster club took out a $17,000 loan to pay for a sprinkler system. Mr. Whitted ran a mechanical trench digger himself, into which volunteers laid the sprinkler line.
When asked why they hadn't asked the county to have professionals do the work, Mr. Whitted replied, "We haven't got any better sense."
A similar labor force built the first bleachers.
John Oescher, a young math teacher hired by Mr. Whitted, was among the men and women who had shown up that Saturday morning.
"We were working our tails off," said Oescher, 69, who remained at Lakewood for 30 years before his retirement. "Around 1 p.m., Eric disappears. Everybody started laughing.
"Two and a half hours later, here comes Eric. He drives his car right into the middle of the football field. He says, 'Quittin' time!' "
Mr. Whitted had brought a grill, coolers stocked with steak from the area's best meat market and beer.
"He spent the rest of the afternoon cooking steaks. That just typifies Eric," Oescher said. "He did everything he could to make his school the best school anybody ever worked in."
Mr. Whitted later earned a doctorate in education and served as an area superintendent. After his retirement in 1988 he worked as a consultant and traveled with his wife. He also worked with other men on a concept Mr. Whitted believed in: vertical hangars for airplanes, similar to dry storage units for boats.
But in 15 years, they could never get the numbers to work out.
"Someday they might work," his son said. "It might be reality, and that's typical of my father."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.