ST. PETERSBURG — One by one, students filed into a classroom at St. Petersburg College Wednesday, each pausing to take a breath before finding a seat.
Just a week earlier on Feb. 27, professor Bruce Brodney, with his thick-rimmed glasses and sharp wit, had delivered his last lecture there. He died in his sleep hours later, at 66.
Now, SPC students training to be teachers, as well as generations of educators throughout Pinellas County and beyond, are mourning the loss of a longtime mentor. His impact, they say, reached far and wide.
READ THE GRADEBOOK: Florida's best source for education news.
"I can't even imagine all the people he has touched during his life," said Jenni Blanchard Herman, 37, a former student of Brodney's who teaches second grade at Pinellas Central Elementary.
"It's a loss to the college and to our community," she added. "It's a loss to future teachers."
Brodney took his first teaching job at St. Petersburg's Northwest Elementary School in the fall of 1979, after earning a master's degree in education leadership at the University of South Florida.
His classmate Jeffrey Schmidt was hired about the same time, and the two became the second and third male teachers ever to teach at the school, according to Schmidt.
"We just tried to make learning fun," said Schmidt, who is still at Northwest. "I'm sure we shocked some of the folks that worked here at the time, doing all our zany stuff. But we found out kids related to it."
Brodney dressed in costume for history lessons and drew ecosystems on the board for science — anything to spark interest in students, his wife Sandra Brodney said. She is an educator, too, still working in Pinellas schools as a math coach.
She said her husband knew that "the more energy you put into the relationships you have with your kids, the more you can do with them."
Sharon Sanders, a longtime Pinellas teacher and friend of the Brodney family, called the professor "one of the best teachers I have ever known." She recalled him sitting on the floor with kids at the county's science fair to talk about their projects.
"Instead of standing over them, he would get down to their height," she said. "He showed them respect … and it was in such a loving way that they would respond to anything he was trying to teach them."
Shauna Bergwall, now an assistant principal in Polk County, was in Brodney's fifth-grade class at Northwest. She remembers his way with students, making each feel special and understood. He helped her start a school newspaper, and she went on to study journalism in college before becoming a teacher herself.
Bergwall kept in touch with Brodney, speaking with him as recently as a couple months ago. He had offered to edit her dissertation for a doctoral program she is enrolled in at Florida Southern College, and often pushed her to apply for a principal position.
"I was just getting ready to start bouncing some ideas off him … and I just can't believe that's not going to happen now," said Bergwall, 45, adding that she plans to dedicate the dissertation to Brodney.
"He's just one of those teachers you never, ever forget."
After working at a handful of schools in Pinellas, Brodney earned a doctorate in elementary education curriculum and instruction at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1993, along with his wife. The two had married three years earlier and together set out to bring more to the world of education in Pinellas. Both were top 10 finalists for the district's Teacher of the Year award in 1991.
Brodney started in 2003 as one of the first education professors at St. Petersburg College. Donnika Jones enrolled in his classes that same year.
Now the principal of Melrose Elementary, one of Pinellas' most struggling schools, Jones credits Brodney with showing her how reach even the most vulnerable child through innovative teaching techniques. She still thinks back to his lessons from time to time, calling them the "foundation" of her career.
"He really understood the importance of equity in education," Jones said. "He lived it through his actions, and in the way that he taught us and challenged us to see teaching in non-traditional ways. … I think that's why I'm in the school that I'm in."
On Tuesday, Brodney's current students at St. Petersburg College met in education professor Nancy Watkins' class to share poems and stories about him. Every person was in tears, 33-year-old student Stacey Cornetta said.
"People … might not understand how heavy of a hit we took in this," she said. "We're not in a big university with a professor at the bottom of the room that is untouchable. … He was really looking forward to seeing us all out in the field."
Student Stephanee Bridges, 27, said Brodney had an "uncanny ability" to bring people together. But his death has taken that to a new level. Although he is gone, his presence can still be felt in his classroom, she said.
The students agreed Tuesday to stay close through graduation, then carry Brodney's spirit into their own classrooms, Watkins said. A memorial scholarship fund for future teachers is in the works at the college.
"We want to make his legacy what it should be," Bridges said. "We want him to live on in our teaching. We want to push each other to be better for him, in memory of him."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.
Bruce F. Brodney
Born: Jan. 16, 1953
Died: Feb. 27, 2019
Survivors: wife, Sandra, and son, Sean.
Service: 11 a.m. Saturday, March 23, at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N in St. Petersburg. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Bruce F. Brodney Education Scholarship Fund, benefiting future educators. Visit foundation.spcollege.edu/giving.