John C. Demps, 58, principal of Gibbs High School since 1987, died of a heart attack Friday night while walking near his home, his wife, Earline M., said Saturday. Mr. Demps' body was found about 9 p.m. near Hyacinth and Myrtle ways S, several blocks from his home, 831 Jasmine Way S, police said.
Mr. Demps was scheduled to leave his post July 1 to coordinate recruitment of adult volunteers to teach occupations to students and to oversee a new program that mixes traditional curriculum and vocational education.
"The kids were very much attracted to him, and he had established a relationship with them," said Anthony Thurston, assistant principal at Gibbs. Thurston had been acting principal for the past month, he said.
The theme of Thursday's graduation was to be "We Came, We Learned, We Departed Together" because Mr. Demps became principal four years ago, just as the graduating class was starting its high school career, Thurston said. Students and faculty had planned a tribute to Mr. Demps at graduation and the yearbook was dedicated to him. Thurston was not sure if the graduation theme would be changed.
"It is very ironic. I'm still reeling from some of this," Thurston said. "The thing we have to be very careful about now is the emotional impact of his death." Students have exams scheduled Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. "Our approach is to maintain school, finish our examinations and then we'll have some tribute to Mr. Demps," Thurston said.
Sondra Thomas, who has served as president of Gibbs' parent-teacher-student association (PTSA) for three years, was devastated by the news of Mr. Demps' death.
"I had an award to give him on Monday for all his hard work at the school," she said. The award, unknown to Mr. Demps, was to be presented at a surprise luncheon in the cafeteria, attended by members of the booster club, PTSA members and the school advisory committee.
Mrs. Thomas, whose son James, a Gibbs junior, comes from Tampa to be a part of the performing arts magnet program at Gibbs, was part of a large group of parents who protested Mr. Demps' reassignment.
"We wrote letters and got petitions, but we just couldn't keep him," Mrs. Thomas said. "He was heartbroken about having to leave. He was taking his plaques down and saying goodbye."
Jennifer Port, a senior at Gibbs and student government vice president, cried when she heard of Mr. Demps' death. "He'd do anything for us. He had what was called an open-door policy, and any time we needed him, he was there," Miss Port, 18, said. "He had a special care for his students."
Miss Port said that she thinks students will do something special for Mr. Demps at the graduation ceremony. "There's got to be something we can do," she said.
School Board member Lee Benjamin said Mr. Demps' death was a "tragic and shocking loss. Mr. Demps was dedicated to students and devoted his life to working with students. We'll certainly miss him."
Benjamin, who had known Mr. Demps since 1970, hired him as an assistant principal at Northeast High School. "It is going to be upsetting to the student body," he said.
"We were extremely shocked and sad," said school Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "Our thoughts and prayers certainly go out to his family."
Hinesley said that graduation, which is set for Thursday at the high school's Newton Williams Stadium, will go on as planned.
"I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death," said Barbara Crockett, Pinellas County School Board chairman. "He was a good leader for many years and I think the students especially related to him. He will surely be missed."
Mr. Demps had worked with the Pinellas County school system since 1962, starting as a teacher at Pinellas High School in Clearwater. He was a teacher at Sixteenth Street Junior High School and then was transferred to Boca Ciega. He served as project director for Pinellas County Neighborhood Youth Corps. He was appointed assistant principal at Northeast High School in 1973.
He served as principal at Boca Ciega High School until 1987.
Mr. Demps was born in Bartow and came here in the early 1960s. He was a graduate of Florida A&M University, and received his master's degree in science from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He then studied at the University of South Florida and Butler University.
From 1951 to 1955 he served as a communications operations supervisor in the U.S. Air Force.
He was a member of Bethel Community Baptist Church, Phi Delta Kappa, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Florida Association of School Administrators, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Pinellas County Principals Association and the Pinellas Administrative Association, was a life member of NAACP and was a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International.
In 1976-77 he was nominated Boss of the Year by the Pinellas County Educational Secretaries Association.
In addition to his wife, survivors include five daughters, Audrey Franklin, Greensboro, N.C., Dorothea Jennings, Tampa, and Judy Fowler, Karen D. McCree and Tara Demps, all of St. Petersburg; two brothers, Leon, Bartow, and H. Kenneth, Orlando; and five grandchildren.
Creal Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
_ Staff writers Donya Currie, Karen Datko and Betty Jean Miller contributed to this story.