While many area high school students hit the beach to celebrate the last day of school Wednesday, others were mourning the loss of "a true friend." More than 1,000 people paid tribute to Gibbs High School principal John C. Demps, 58, who died May 31 of a heart attack while walking near his St. Petersburg home. Among the mourners were several School Board members, some area principals and about 100 Gibbs students.
Walter Kyles, a graduating senior at Gibbs, said it was hard to accept Mr. Demps' death.
"The students are in a state of disbelief," said Kyles, 19. "We're not really ready to face it." Seniors wore their caps and gowns to show support for a man they said helped them reach their goals.
The crowd at Bethel Community Baptist Church, 1045 16th St. S, was so large that sanctuary doors were left open and folding chairs filled the lobby. Family members occupied nine pews, and the seats reserved for Gibbs faculty were filled.
By 2:30 p.m. the church parking lot already was overflowing, and cars spilled out onto the street and neighboring lawns. About 12 St. Petersburg police officers were called to direct traffic on 16th Street S.
Mr. Demps' popularity with students, teachers and the community will not be forgotten, said school Superintendent Howard Hinesley.
"He will not soon be forgotten by the many people whose lives he touched in Pinellas County," Hinesley said in a speech during the funeral. "He was loved by the Pinellas County school system, he was loved by the teachers and he was loved by the students."
Tom Stockton, a social studies teacher at Gibbs for more than 30 years, said after the service that although Mr. Demps' death is a tragic loss for Gibbs, this morning's graduation will proceed as planned.
"The students really loved Mr. Demps, but I think they will go ahead with the graduation," Stockton said. "He would have wanted them to do that."
Seniors promised to do their best to enjoy their graduation day.
"Graduation is going to be very hard because his memory lives on . . .," said student body Vice President Jennifer Port, wiping away tears.
Mr. Demps became principal at Gibbs in 1987. He was scheduled to leave his post as principal July 1 and begin an administrative job for the school district. Students and parents did not want Demps to leave and had circulated petitions to keep him at Gibbs.
As people milled around the church before the service, trying to squeeze into the packed sanctuary, they shared fond memories of Mr. Demps. Lori Cole, 21, remembered showing Mr. Demps around Gibbs on his first day. She was the senior class president then.
"He was wonderful," Mrs. Cole said of Mr. Demps. "He would do anything for the students. If we needed someone to talk to, he was there."