ST. PETERSBURG — Gus Sakkis, the Pinellas County schools superintendent through most of the tumultuous 1970s, during which he enforced desegregation and reorganized district management, died Wednesday. He was 90.
Dr. Sakkis had lived in assisted living and suffered a recent health decline, his family said.
He served 33 years in Pinellas County schools, the last nine as superintendent. Colleagues praised him as a steady hand whose low-key but tough demeanor allowed him to shepherd the district through racial tensions, negotiate with teachers at the start of collective bargaining and improve student test scores.
Critics called him insensitive, including a local NAACP president who referred to Dr. Sakkis as an "arrogant S.O.B."
"It was a tough time and we needed a tough superintendent, and he was that," said Martha Rudy Wallace, a former School Board chairwoman. "He was not bowing down to anyone to find an easy way out."
Dr. Sakkis had barely become acting superintendent of schools in 1972 when opposition to a year-old desegregation plan reached the school system's central office. He responded by defending busing, promoting African-American administrators and meeting with parents of different races.
Dr. Sakkis is credited with a number of innovations.
He divided the growing district into four areas, each with a superintendent who reported to him; instituted school advisory committees to give parents and teachers more input; and launched pre-employment teacher testing five years before the state required teachers to pass an exam.
He performed the job duties in 1972 while the school district launched a yearlong search for a permanent superintendent. Board members decided on Dr. Sakkis despite his lack of a glittery resume or a doctorate (he later earned one from the University of South Florida).
By the time he became permanent superintendent in 1973, he had already served as deputy superintendent from 1967 to 1972 — years in which there was not only the desegregation order, but a contentious statewide teachers strike.
"When you look at those changes occurring during that time — as much as we talk about changes going on now — it may have been more challenging then," said Marshall Ogletree, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.
Controversial issues extended to student discipline (he instituted "timeout rooms" and a written code of conduct), library books and curriculum. When a group of parents presented him with a list of books they wanted banned, Dr. Sakkis moved some titles but refused to remove them from libraries.
"That was his shining hour," Wallace said. "He was not about to ban books."
Dr. Sakkis was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1921. His father, a Greek immigrant, died when Dr. Sakkis was 9 months old.
He was raised by another relative. An all-state football player in high school, he attended Rollins College before leaving for military service. He flew a treacherous route over Burma with the Army Air Forces during World War II.
He married but never had children.
After the war, Dr. Sakkis worked as a teacher and coach in Tampa and Clearwater. In 1953, he became the first assistant principal at Clearwater High, and in 1955 he became principal of Tarpon Springs High.
As the district searched for a permanent superintendent in 1972, a reporter asked Dr. Sakkis, then the acting superintendent, what qualities he thought the permanent job holder ought to have.
"Well, I'd say he should be about 50 years old, of Greek extraction, kind of liberal and working on his doctorate," he replied.
Though hailed at first for his firm support of integration, Dr. Sakkis later fell out of favor with African-American leaders who said he had not done enough to integrate the administrative ranks.
Critics cited the fact that midway through 1980, just one black person held a high administrative position. They also cited the school system's ranking in a federal report as one of the nation's 10 worst for suspending minority students out of proportion with the population.
Morris Milton, then president of the St. Petersburg NAACP (and author of the "arrogant S.O.B." comment), filed a class-action lawsuit against the school district and led a "Sack Sakkis" campaign.
Dr. Sakkis defended his hiring record by asking, "How many blacks were in high schools (administrative work) before I got here? Zero. How many blacks were in central administration? Zero. Who has talked to the black community in the black community? No one else to my knowledge."
Dr. Sakkis retired in 1981.
In 1987, the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club presented him with its Benjamin Franklin Distinguished Leader Award, citing his role in desegregation and defense of books in school libraries.
This story has been modified to reflect the following correction: Dr. Sakkis became principal of Tarpon Springs High School in 1955. An earlier online version of the story gave an incorrect date.
Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]