ST. PETERSBURG — Leonard Summers liked to talk it out.
Whenever racial tensions arose at Campbell Park Elementary school where Mr. Summers was principal, he would pull beanbag chairs into a circle. Then, without yelling, he'd help his students defuse the situation.
And when his own kids fought at home, they'd talk. And talk. And talk.
"I used to want him to give me a whooping instead of talking," said his son, Michael Summers. "But he was the ultimate. As a kid, you don't know that. Everything I do know and the honesty and the loyalty I show people is because of him."
Mr. Summers was the first African-American principal of an all-white school in Pinellas County, Forest Hills Elementary. The School Board appointed him principal in 1969.
"I remember a businessman said, 'You're going to have trouble,' " Summers told the St. Petersburg Times in 1999. "At the end of the year, that same man came back and apologized."
His methods of education were ahead of the curve, focusing on self-acceptance and self-esteem. His system encouraged kids to express and stand up for themselves. To make someone else happy everyday.
"Also, black mothers and fathers must accord their children the courtesy of listening to what they have to say," Summers told the Times. "Even if you don't agree with everything they are saying. And remember, parents, you might not see changes overnight. It's going to take some stern loving and caring to work with your child."
Michael Summers, now 45, said he was the only black student at Forest Hills when his dad was principal. He remembers going to work early with his dad, leaving late, hanging around the teachers.
He remembers getting new clothes at the beginning of the school year and donating his old ones to kids in need. And it wasn't unusual for his father to reach into his pocket and hand lunch money to poor kids.
Mr. Summers came from a hard background. In Macon, Ga., he picked cotton and ironed clothes to help his family survive. He walked 5 miles to school each way in worn-down shoes.
He entered the Navy and was stationed in Pearl Harbor. He went to college on the GI Bill and picked tobacco to earn extra money. He got a job as a truant officer in Pinellas County before beginning his school principal career at Palmetto Elementary, now Curtis Fundamental in Clearwater.
As principal, he met students at the door in the mornings and said goodbye in the afternoon. He visited their tables at lunch and went into their classrooms. He started programs, including one that took kids on field trips to skating rinks.
When he retired in 1983, he didn't stop teaching. He volunteered at schools, including Mount Vernon Elementary in Disston Heights. He tutored kids, helping them learn to count money or build kites from paper, a straw and string.
Mr. Summers spent his free time tending to his garden and taking his family on vacations all around the country. Before he got ill with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease and dementia over the last six months, he loved to ride around Lake Maggiore on his three-wheel bicycle.
On Friday, his illnesses took their toll. He died at age 84. But even as his mind clouded, his love for children remained. Until his last breath, his family said, they were his passion.
Before Mr. Summers died, his 11-year-old grandson came to visit. When he walked into the room, his grandfather's face lit up.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.