ST. PETERSBURG — For a dozen years at John Hopkins Middle School, students have known two teachers who helped them through the thickets of algebra and geometry like kindly tour guides.
Joyce Gist handled the sixth-graders. Her husband, Gregg Gist, prepared them for high school and beyond.
Of the two, he was the more flamboyant. Mr. Gist drove a black Corvette, could dance hip-hop for hours at school dances and didn't need a reason to throw a party.
When school resumes shortly, only one of that husband-and-wife duo will be back. Mr. Gist, a 26-year Pinellas County teacher known for making mathematics fun, died Sunday, the result of a heart attack, his family said. He was 61.
"He touched an enormous number of students," said Barry Brown, John Hopkins' principal. "He was a mainstay on our campus and a mentor to our teachers. I think his impact has been seen to be pretty large."
In recent years, students have given him high marks on a site called ratemyteachers.com.
"Best year of math ever and I hated math," wrote one. "Listen to this man he knows what he's doing! And he can have fun with it too!"
He had a reputation for reaching students who might otherwise have given up.
"His tone and pitch were very nurturing," said Denis Kellman, his brother-in-law. "It wasn't authoritative. … It was very welcoming, and I think his students responded to that."
Said principal Brown, "It's an 'it' factor. You don't have a name for it, but you know it's there: an innate ability to push students who are achieving at a high level and also an ability to push students who are not at a high level, but getting them to realize that they could do better."
Once while teaching, a short sleeve rode up on Mr. Gist's arm just far enough to reveal a tattoo he had tried to conceal. Though the tattoos were innocuous enough — a cross on one arm, a lion's head on the other — the secret was out.
Students gave him an admiring nickname: "Gangsta Gist."
Mr. Gist also was known for coaching multiple sports, befriending lonely students and rescuing stranded parents who couldn't pick up their kids from school. Those kinds of actions led to other nicknames — like "Papa Gist," or just "Dad."
After so many years of teaching, Mr. Gist often taught the children of former students.
"He believed everybody could do math," said Joyce Gist, 58. "There was no reason you couldn't."
Mr. Gist was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and grew up playing sports. He met Joyce Kellman at Hampton University in Virginia, on the way to the cafeteria.
"It was love at first sight," she said.
They both taught in New York schools before moving to St. Petersburg in 1986. They lived near Lakewood High School, where neighbors recognized him walking his black Labrador, Jordan, named for Michael Jordan. Mr. Gist taught math at Azalea Middle School, then in 1999 moved to John Hopkins, where his wife taught.
They were planning a 40th wedding anniversary trip to London next year.
A few months ago, doctors diagnosed a cancerous tumor on his jaw. Mr. Gist underwent surgery in July. He was rushed to the hospital on Sunday. Doctors told the family he had suffered a massive heart attack.
Though a funeral service is private, the family has decided to hold a public celebration of life Sunday at the school. The decision came about after seeing a Facebook site called R.I.P. Mr. Gist, which by Thursday had generated more than 1,500 "likes."
"He really set the tone here," Brown said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248.