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A Community Mourns // At Hernando High, it's hard on everyone

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Hernando High School principal Elaine Sullivan started Friday morning's announcements by saying, "We're going to try to have business as usual."

But no one, not even Sullivan, really believed it.

Most students had already heard that math teacher Mike Bristol and physical education teacher Mike Imhoff, the school's former football coach, had been shot and killed the night before.

Those who hadn't arrived expecting to prepare for next week's semester exams. Instead, they were confronted by the collective grief of a school mourning the loss of two of its most popular faculty members.

"When I first heard it this morning, I didn't believe it. I thought my friends were playing around," said Clarence Mobley, a freshman football player. Mobley was walking around dazed after a prayer meeting for the football and girls basketball teams.

"Then I came to school and saw everybody crying. I had to go back to my friends and apologize."

The meeting was one of a series of hastily scheduled events set up to help the pupils cope with their loss.

There was an informal gathering around the flagpole before classes began Friday morning. Students and faculty members watched quietly as uniformed members of the campus ROTC raised the flag and then slowly lowered it to half-staff.

When the school day ended, several hundred students and teachers gathered in the school's courtyard to listen to a solo trumpet player blow taps. And during the day, students organized a candlelight vigil that was scheduled for 9 p.m. Friday at Tom Fisher Stadium.

In the time between those events, academics were forgotten. Sullivan canceled next week's exams, though all of the weekend's sporting events remained on the schedule. Most class time on Friday was spent discussing Imhoff and Bristol.

"Really, today is to support each other and to be together," Sullivan said. "What we tell the students is go to somebody, talk to somebody."

In Sullivan's 10 years at the school, Hernando High has seen several tragedies. When Russell Coats was beaten and killed in 1990, most of the people involved were current or former Hernando High students. In 1993, seniors Veronica Petters and Ceara Monaghan were killed when their car collided with a truck on State Road 50.

Those events prepared the administration to deal with tragedy, Sullivan said. She knew to call counselors from around the county and ministers from local churches to come to the school to help students.

"But we all decided this might have been the worst," Sullivan said.

Certainly it more directly affected people like J. J. Shannon, a Hernando High School football quarterback who told how powerful an impact a caring teacher or coach can have on the life of a student.

Shannon said he was raised mostly by his grandmother, who also recently died.

Imhoff, he said, "knew I didn't have much." He sometimes took him shopping for food. He once bought him a turkey at Thanksgiving.

"He'd do anything for me," Shannon said. "He was like the father I never had."

He also was a good coach, Shannon said, telling him to keep up his grades and weightlifting.

Paul Niedermeyer, a lineman on the team, said he and friends organized the gathering at the flagpole by calling one another over the telephone Thursday night.

"It was out of respect. He was respected, he and Mr. Bristol," Niedermeyer said.

"I think he was one of the best coaches in the area. He took teams to the state (playoffs) two years in a row. Who else can say that? He was a hell of a man, too."

"It just seems like he's still here," said Chris Daley, another freshman. Daley plays basketball, but he said Imhoff tried to get him to come out for football.

"He'd say, "What's the matter, you scared to come in and play with the big boys?' " Daley said.

"It seems like he's still here. I won't believe he's gone until I really see him in the casket."

One reason students took the loss hard was because the two teachers were so prominent. Another was that their deaths were so senseless.

Even a day after the shootings, the Sheriff's Office could offer no real explanation why they believe Jimmy Smith, a 19-year-old middle school dropout, had killed the two teachers. He was emotionally troubled, but neither Imhoff nor Bristol apparently had done anything to provoke him.

"One of the worst things to ask is why did it happen," said the Rev. David Garcia, pastor of Brooksville Assembly of God Church.

He was instead urging students who passed him in the courtyard to learn from the two men's best qualities.

"Don't let this make you bitter. Let it make you better," he told a crying student.

The Rev. Raymond Dage of St. John's Episcopal Church in Brooksville asked a student only, "Are you doing okay? Really okay?" and hugged her.

"Everybody would like to make sense of it," he said, "but you can't. What you have to deal with is a real strong sense of shock and emptiness."

One student, Jenna Gathje, felt it strongly enough to write a poem about the tragedy. Sullivan, sounding tearful, read it over the intercom just before classes ended Friday.

"Never forgetting the two teachers, we will always love and adore," the poem concluded. "In our hearts and minds, they will remain forevermore."

Afterward, Sullivan said she thought the students had accomplished all they could by sharing the pain they felt.

"I knew they would come together, but they did so more than ever," she said. "It was marvelous. They really bonded as a family."