ST. PETERSBURG — The appointment of Marilyn Heminger as principal of Gibbs High School in 1981, making her the first female high school principal in Pinellas County in almost 50 years, provoked skepticism in some, disappointment in others.
It also landed Mrs. Heminger, who was white, in the middle of a race-based controversy.
A School Board member announced he would oppose the appointment, saying Gibbs "needs the strong physical presence and the strong moral presence of a man."
While she had her share of critics, none accused Mrs. Heminger of lacking a strong presence. She survived both the Gibbs controversy and a campus shooting as principal at Pinellas Park High School seven years later.
Mrs. Heminger, a music teacher who proved to critics that a woman could handle the bumps and bruises of running a high school, died March 23, of a respiratory illness. She was 80.
"She was a very strong leader in that you knew where you stood with her," said Sara Dubbeld, a Gibbs English teacher when Mrs. Heminger was hired. "Her expectations were her expectations, and everybody pretty much followed along with that."
She grew up in South Bend, Ind., the daughter of a postal worker. Through her cello skill, she won a music scholarship to Hillsdale College in Michigan. She moved to Pinellas County in 1957 with her husband, Duane Heminger. Joining the Pinellas County schools in 1969, she worked at Meadowlawn, Riviera and Safety Harbor middle schools, then Dixie Hollins High School, where she served as assistant principal.
Word of her appointment to Gibbs riled community leader Watson Haynes, who thought that Gibbs, which served many black students, needed a black principal. "I think this decision shows real insensitivity to the needs of the black community," he said.
School Board member Jerry Castellanos, who made the "moral presence" comment, questioned her ability to break up fights.
Others bristled over newspaper accounts calling Mrs. Heminger the first female high-school principal in Pinellas County. Theresa Snell McKinney, a black woman, was principal at Gibbs for several months in 1932, but resigned for health reasons and died in 1933.
In the end, the School Board unanimously confirmed Mrs. Heminger. Under her, Gibbs won a $30,000 grant for a performing and visual arts center.
After six years at Gibbs, she became principal of Pinellas Park High, where she faced a new set of challenges. In 1988, a student shot and killed an assistant principal and wounded two other educators.
"The aftermath was really tough on her," said Charles Wintz, her brother. After vetoing an account of the shooting in the school newspaper, she fired the newspaper's adviser, calling her insubordinate, then saw the decision overturned in arbitration.
She retired in 1990, and enjoyed scuba diving through Florida's springs and sunken ships. She won cutting horse competitions, separating sheep from the herd.
"I want people to think I am intelligent and that I make good decisions," Mrs. Heminger said.