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"A celebration of love'

Published Oct. 8, 2005

(ran CTI, LTCTNT editions)

When a youngster didn't have a clean white shirt or a black bow tie to perform with Gibbs High School's St. Cecelia Choir back in the 1940s and '50s, it was no problem: Director and friend Ernest Ayer Ponder was there with the needed items.

Teacher and friend Ponder was also there when students needed 35 cents for lunch, or $1 or so to purchase a workbook or writing materials, or a dime to pay to ride the school bus. Gibbs students, all African-American at that time, were required to pay because Pinellas County did not provide transportation for them and the buses were purchased by the school.

Former teacher and friend Ponder also came to the rescue when a Gibbs graduate needed a violin for her youngster to use in music class.

He spent several hours searching the dusty attic of his mother's home for an old instrument he and his sister had used as children. He found it, and presented it to the aspiring violinist as a gift.

These and numerous other equally poignant stories surfaced Oct. 16 during a recognition luncheon honoring the veteran educator at the Howard Johnson Hotel.

The previous day had been proclaimed Ernest Ayer Ponder Day by the city of St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Commission and the state of Florida.

The event was called "A Celebration of Love" by its organizers, a 70-member group dubbed "Friends of Ernest A. Ponder." Some 200 well-wishers attended.

One of the chief planners, Dr. Kha Dennard, said in a brief speech that "Mr. Ponder has spent more than 40 years earning his 15 minutes of fame." She is a Gibbs graduate and sang in the award-winning St. Cecelia Choir founded and directed by the honoree. Dr. Dennard's sisters, Barbara Bolden and Verdya Robinson, were other major planners.

In addition to his classroom and choral work, Ponder was lauded for a lifetime of encouraging students to attain their full potential. After schools were integrated, he worked as a social studies teacher at local Lakewood Senior High School.

"He also taught us "survival skills,'

" recalled former pupil Rosalee Peck. "I remember once when we, the students, were complaining about using old books sent to Gibbs from white schoolsthat a lot of the pages were torn or missingMr. Ponder said calmly, "Okay, we'll just read the pages that are left!'


Florida Commissioner of Education Doug Jamerson, master of ceremonies, said his career had been influenced by Ponder. He reiterated the program's sub-theme, "Because Of You, We Are."

Prayer was led by yet another Ponder protege, the Rev. Wayne G. Thompson, pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church. Music was provided by groups directed by James E. Bolden and Ralph A. James.

St. Petersburg City Councilman Ernest Fillyau of District 6, civic activist Sarah Thomas, retired Pinellas County Commissioner Mamie Hodges, and former Ponder student Renet Dennard also played major program roles.

Dais guests included the honoree's wife, Clara Ponder, and daughter Erna-Claife Ponder.

Ponder, a youthful-looking 77, retired in 1975 but continues to serve the community on boards of two local museums and as a member of the city's newly formed African-American Historic Resources Committee. He is a member of a local pioneer family.

Seniority columnist Mamie Doyle Brown has an item in the October issue of Reader's Digest, telling a "Life in These United States" story about how she and her siblings got interested in horticulture. You'll find it on page 90 of the magazine.