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Children's champion to retire

(ran SE edition of LT)

Vyrle Davis remembers the first time an integrated Gibbs High School had to play Dixie Hollins High in football. The game was held during the daytime because officials feared there would be trouble.

Dixie Hollins was known for playing the song Dixie whenever a touchdown was scored, he said. That tradition was expected to continue despite the feelings of the black players from Gibbs.

"We scored a touchdown," said Davis, who was then assistant principal at Gibbs, "and all of a sudden, guess what happened? We started playing Dixie."

That was popular with the Gibbs students, Davis said, because "we turned it around."

For Davis, it was a victory for the self-esteem of his students. He continued to fight for students even when he left the schools for an administrative post in Pinellas County schools.

Now Davis, 59, an area superintendent and one of the highest ranking administrators in the district, is retiring this week after 35 years. He is one of the two highest-ranking African-American administrators and a member of Superintendent Howard Hinesley's 12-member cabinet, a group of administrators Hinesley consults on district business.

When Davis leaves, the district will lose the historical perspective of a man who taught in segregated schools and understands the pains of desegregation.

Davis, a Tampa native, remembers a time at the then-segregated Sixteenth Street Middle School when each teacher had to raise $25 to pay for basic classroom supplies, such as paper and pencils. The practice was common at black schools because those schools only received the bare minimums, such as used textbooks and lab equipment. Davis said he was lucky because he sold chicken made by his wife Mozell to raise the money.

His departure means more though. The district will lose a man who stands on his convictions and champions children, especially black children.

Many of Davis' contributions have gone unheralded because he works without demanding publicity, said Lewis Williams, associate superintendent for pupil assignment. Williams, who has known Davis for 23 years, will replace him as area superintendent, an assistant to Hinesley who oversees schools in a particular area of the county.

Davis, whose grandparents, mother and aunts were educators, began the Ebony Scholars program, which recognizes outstanding minority students. He has also helped establish tutorial programs in St. Petersburg neighborhoods that have a large African-American population.

This year, he began setting up the Role Models of Excellence program, patterned after a Miami project that seeks to help black male students by pairing them with successful black men.

"We've got to stop blaming others for our kids' downfall," Davis said. "It's time for the community to stand up and be counted."

Davis may have a reputation for helping increase opportunities for black children, but he always treated all children equally.

Associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction Judi Westfall served as Davis' assistant principal from 1980 to 1985 at St. Petersburg High School.

When Davis took over at St. Petersburg, she said, he came to a school steeped in traditions that were not positive for all students. For example, the student body was ruled by elitist fraternities and sororities. Davis managed to even the playing field so all students got a chance to participate in high school activities.

"It really felt like family and I really see Vyrle having a lot to do with that," Westfall said. "It's the leadership person that makes that happen."

Despite Davis' reluctance to seek publicity for his accomplishments, his outspokenness is almost legendary in the district.

"He is blatantly honest and speaks his mind to all people, black and white," said former deputy superintendent Cecile Boris, who retired earlier this year after 34 years in the district. "He would argue and argue until he realized it was over and then he'd move forward just like a strong team player."

Williams said there have been many times in cabinet meetings when Davis has refused to give up if there was a point he was trying to make for children.

After one meeting, Williams said, he told Davis: "Vyrle, you get so militant you scare me in these cabinet meetings."

Despite that, Williams said he will miss Davis' support for issues they both champion.

Hinesley said he would miss that outspoken honesty.

"What I like about him is he's always been candid," Hinesley said. "He's not one to say what he thought you wanted him to say. . . . He's someone I can call on and bounce an idea off and not have to wonder is that how he really feels."

"I've had the reputation of being a tough guy," Davis said.

But Davis isn't so tough that he can't take a joke.

"Vyrle's a funny guy," Hinesley said. "I mean funny "ha ha.' He's got a wit. He's the type of guy you can pick on, who can pick on you."

Davis' colleagues took advantage of that recently in a goodbye roast. Williams told a story about the first time he attended an out-of-town conference with Davis and other administrators. When they were registering at the hotel, Williams said, he noticed no one wanted to stay in the same room with Davis. Williams found out why about 1 a.m.

"You talk about snoring," Williams said. "That Vyrle has the loudest snore . . . I tease him about that to this day."

By all accounts, that toughness masks compassion and sensitivity. Certainly, when talking about his caring for children and their welfare, Davis' eyes tear up and his voice breaks.

Davis does not plan to fade peacefully into an obscure retirement. He said he will spend the first two or three months doing nothing, but then politics beckon.

Although he does not plan to run for office, Davis said he is interested in helping candidates. There is a need for more African-Americans to get involved in the community, he said.

Part of that involvement could come from an Over-the-Hill Club, he said, that could meet to discuss issues and maybe travel some.

"I think we need to raise the consciousness level of the community," Davis said.

He also plans to continue caring for his mother, who is 90 and lives with him and his wife. He and his wife have a daughter Celeste.

But whatever he does in the future, he hopes he has left a legacy to the Pinellas school system of putting children first.

That hasn't always been easy, but it has been enjoyable and challenging.

"There've been times when I've thought, "Why in the world did I want to do this?' " Davis said. "But that only lasted a few minutes."

In the long run, he said, the best memory is having earned the support of both the black and the white communities.

"I hope when people take a look at Vyrle Davis, they see a man who really had kids in his heart," he said. "Not that I was the first black area superintendent (but that I was) a man who did what he could, who did what was fair, who was firm, consistent and believed that all kids could learn and become productive citizens."