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Principal nears end of long career in Hernando

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Like thousands who would come after him, it was a cold Northern winter that drove Cy Wingrove to Hernando County in 1967.

Wingrove arrived expecting to find the same kind of work he left in Ohio _ as a juvenile probation officer. But there was a problem.

In 1967, Hernando County didn't have juvenile probation officers. Some said the county didn't have juvenile delinquency because it was so small that parents knew about their children's misdeeds before they got home.

Undeterred, Wingrove took the advice of someone who suggested he try teaching.

After an interview with Mitchel L. Black, a patriarch of education in Hernando County, Wingrove soon was teaching fourth-graders at Brooksville Primary School. Never mind that he lacked a teaching degree. He would pick that up later.

Some 34 years later, Wingrove is on the backside of an eventful career in the Hernando County schools that was tumultuous in some ways, groundbreaking in others. At age 66, Wingrove is planning to retire at the end of this school year.

His career will likely be remembered on several fronts.

In the early 1970s, Wingrove led Hernando County's fledgling teachers union into the era of collective bargaining, serving as chief negotiator during the first contract talks.

From 1981 to 1983, he took a leave from the classroom to serve as president of the state teachers union, the only Hernando County teacher to do so.

In 1988, Wingrove became the principal at Powell Middle School and has remained there ever since. His 13 years, much of it a period when Powell's test scores led the county's four middle schools, cover all but the first four years of the school's existence.

He has endured one of the stormiest chapters in any local school's history. In 1996, one of his teachers, Joseph Gatti, was accused of molesting three Powell students. Gatti was successful in defending himself against the criminal charges. But, five years later, both Gatti and Wingrove are still dealing with aftershocks.

"I have strong mixed emotions. But I guess it's time to go," Wingrove said last week.

"I enjoy my job. I enjoy the students. I like the staff. And I just generally like where I am. I still look forward coming to work. And generally we've had a good time at Powell."

Four years ago, Wingrove entered a retirement savings program that locks school employees into retiring within five years. Wingrove's five years are up on June 30.

"I think it will be extremely hard. I'm not really wanting to think about it," Wingrove said. "You leave so many good people."

Wingrove said he may do nothing but read during the first two weeks of his retirement. From there, he expects to do some volunteer work, but not at Powell.

Wingrove said Powell will need a clean break during the transition. He fully expects the new principal to make plenty of changes, and he doesn't want to get in the way.

"I think sometimes it's sort of better that other people ought to have an opportunity," Wingrove said.

Clarence "Cy" Wingrove was born Jan. 23, 1935, in Parkersburg, W.Va. In the mid 1950s, he was an Air Force weather observer at NATO headquarters in Europe. When he returned to the States, he began working with troubled kids.

Working as a juvenile probation officer showed him that as troubled as some kids are today, most aren't in the same league as the juvenile offenders he dealt with in Ohio.

Veteran educators, like Cynthia Moore, a 38-year teacher and current president of the Hernando teachers union, said Wingrove's efforts to help found the union is his most vital legacy. "We kind of all learned together, but he was the spearhead of it," Moore said.

Today, the union bargains with the School Board for pay raises, negotiates for better benefits and working conditions, and defends teachers in disputes with management. Some teachers, Moore said, don't recognize the union's significance.

"If they were teaching now without the contract," Moore said, "heaven help them all."

Wingrove would go on to serve two years as president of the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, taking a leave from the classroom to be an advocate for teachers before the Legislature.

Ironically, within a couple of years of returning from Tallahassee, Wingrove switched to the management side of things. He was an assistant principal at two schools, including a period at Springstead High School when Wendy Tellone _ now the county superintendent _ was principal.

Eventually, Wingrove found his home at Powell Middle School.

Dave Schoelles, an assistant principal there for six years and now the principal at Fox Chapel Middle School, said Wingrove has devoted himself tirelessly to the school.

So much so that he would come in and run photocopies on the weekends so teachers wouldn't have to do it. So much so that Wingrove _ and a reluctant Schoelles _ spent five summers in a row pressure cleaning the school walls.

"No task too small or insignificant," Schoelles said. "I've never met a person with as much energy and enthusiasm."

That's evident even today, Schoelles said, by Wingrove's willingness to transform his school at the end of his career, adding extensive new arts programs and a microsociety that is aimed at teaching kids about the real world.

More than that, Schoelles said that Wingrove taught him to be patient with young teachers still learning the ropes and to quietly endure criticism, even when it is not justified.

"The thing I took from working with Cy is looking beyond what somebody else tells you is right and doing what is best for kids," Schoelles said.

And, at times, there was plenty of criticism for Wingrove and Powell.

In 1990, Wingrove faced the wrath of parents and students who objected to his dismissal of a popular band instructor who he said did not "meet the needs of the district." He gave no further explanation. But Wingrove's letter of reprimand in the teacher's file was critical of the teacher for remarking that the school was a "joke."

Such incidents led a parent volunteer to tell the Times in 1991 that Wingrove's authoritarian management style was that of a "benevolent dictator." Still, 33 faculty members defended him in a letter to the editor by calling him "Powell Middle School's greatest asset."

Turmoil at the school led then-School Board member Diane Rowden to oppose Wingrove's reappointment as principal. But Rowden's effort to oust him failed. This week, Wingrove declined to talk about that era.

"I've never been the type of person to dwell upon the past because the present is too exciting," Wingrove said. "Life is too short."

What perhaps was his greatest challenge _ the five-year saga surrounding Gatti _ still has not come to an end.

All of the criminal charges against Gatti were dropped or dismissed four years ago when his accusers kept changing their stories. But next month in Brooksville, Gatti must defend himself again, this time against a state Department of Education effort to take away his teaching license.

It's an epoch that has also been a thorn in Wingrove's side.

When the sensational charges broke in December 1996, Wingrove at times seemed overwhelmed.

He ducked media interviews and was criticized by some parents for lying low. The parents of Gatti's accusers even questioned how Wingrove could not have known about Gatti's extensive involvement with their sons. One asked the School Board to investigate Wingrove. It never did.

Two years later, in 1998, Gatti returned to his job at Powell to find parents protesting across the street. Again, Wingrove declined to deal with the media. Even now, Wingrove declines to discuss Gatti's case.

But these days, Wingrove may have another reason to keep silent.

Tucked away in Wingrove's school district personnel file is a March 1, 2000, letter that refers to a complaint filed against Wingrove with the Department of Education's Office of Professional Practices.

The letter says the complaint alleges Wingrove failed to protect the safety and well-being of students.

Education Department officials would not discuss the complaint. But Debra Burge, the mother of Gatti's primary accuser and a Wingrove critic, said the complaint against Wingrove is related to the Gatti case and that it is still unresolved.

The matter could easily outlast Wingrove's career. And, if the past is any indication, it could reinforce perhaps the most lasting legacy of Wingrove's career _ the sound of silence.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report. Staff writer Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to