TAMPA — Alfred Barnes was reluctant at first. This was uncharted territory.
It was 1965. Two school officials approached Mr. Barnes, a physical education teacher at all-black Progress Village Elementary. They delivered news: He would be integrated into all-white Riverhills Elementary.
He was happy at Progress Village. And a black man going into a white school was a big deal.
But Mr. Barnes went in with an open mind and his trademark gentle, philosophical personality. He relished the job, teaching children, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who calls Barnes a role model.
"The children fell in love with him, said Mr. Barnes' wife, Olga Barnes. "And he fell in love with them."
Mr. Barnes died Tuesday of a heart attack. He was 69. He spent his life jumping hurdles that affected his world view and flowed into his teaching.
"When you segregate people, both sides can formulate ignorant ideas about what the other is like," Barnes told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003. "But when you join races together, you realize there is no difference between anybody, except that some people are good and some are bad."
He was raised in Tampa housing projects. At 15, he watched a Christmas performance at a community center. It starred a 13-year-old Cuban girl named Olga. He pointed and said, "I'm going to marry her."
She was less impressed: "I don't like you, and I don't like boys."
They dated for seven years before marrying and having two children. Her parents would have preferred she find a Cuban boy, but they came around.
"I guess it probably was a forbidden love," said Mrs. Barnes, 67. "But he opened many, many doors. If you just gave him a chance, you would love him."
In 1969, he became the first black varsity football coach at an integrated high school, Hillsborough High. And for 25 years, Mr. Barnes was human relations specialist at Plant High, helping at-risk kids. He retired in 2001.
"He was a great friend," said deputy superintendent Ken Otero, who was a first-year black history teacher at Plant when they met. "That was my first assignment. I'm the only white guy teaching that. He helped me with the curriculum, materials, textbooks, the whole nine yards."
They shot pool together and scoured flea markets to boost Mr. Barnes' pocket watch collection. He knew all the good jewelry stores in town. Mr. Barnes squired his wife about dancing. He preferred the jitterbug, but he'd country line dance, too. They had just planned a vacation to Maryland and Boston.
He never stopped doing things.
When he had free time, he scrawled X's and O's on paper — new football plays.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.