Lee Benjamin held many jobs during his 50 years working in Pinellas County public schools, and he seemed to be good at all of them.
He started as a teacher and coach, then climbed to the top administrative team at the district office before retiring and joining the School Board. All the while, he taught a younger generation, including four of his own children, what it means to be an educator.
Mr. Benjamin died Wednesday at his home in Seminole, sending waves of grief and gratitude through the local education community. He was 92.
“We are going to continue to talk about him and everything he has contributed,” Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego said in an interview Wednesday. “He influenced countless people and improved the community as a whole."
Mr. Benjamin first came to work in Pinellas in 1954. He had graduated from Florida State University, where he played basketball, and Northeast High School was opening in St. Petersburg and needed a coach.
Skip Cutting ended up in Mr. Benjamin’s physical education class a few years later, then eventually joined his varsity team. They grew close quickly, forming a bond that lasted through Tuesday, when Cutting saw his former teacher for the last time.
“Every time we spoke, I just got this warm, wonderful feeling of coming home,” Cutting said. “I’ve always tried to emulate Lee Benjamin because I wanted to be the kind of person he was.”
The same was true for Ed Evans, who says he learned how to be a teacher from Mr. Benjamin. He was a basketball player at Boca Ciega High when Northeast High opened nearby, and they met during a game between the two schools.
Evans knew he wanted to be a teacher, so he enrolled to study education at Florida State. When it was time for an internship in 1961, he called Mr. Benjamin.
“He was a basketball coach and a teacher, and I wanted to be a basketball coach and a teacher,” Evans remembered. “It was almost like I said, ‘This is the guy that I want to pattern myself after,’ and I did.”
The pair co-taught a class at Northeast High for about six weeks and, like Cutting, Evans grew close to Mr. Benjamin. They played tennis together multiple times a week up until last year, when Mr. Benjamin became too weak to hold a racket.
Mr. Benjamin inspired four of his five children to become educators, too. Three daughters, including former School Board member Terry Krassner, are retired from long careers in Pinellas schools. Another daughter continues to work in the district office.
“Most of us followed in his footsteps as far as wanting to be in education because he set such a high bar,” said daughter Debbie Ramker. “What I really liked about dad was how he took everything in stride. Nothing ever ruffled him.”
Mr. Benjamin became principal of Northeast High in 1970, just as the district fell under a federal court order to racially integrate its schools. The district began busing black students from other schools to his white campus.
“There couldn’t have been a better principal for Northeast during that time,” said School Board member Bill Dudley. “He was all about kids … no matter their backgrounds. He didn’t have the hang-ups that other people did.”
Dudley was hired by Mr. Benjamin in 1971 to teach and coach wrestling at Northeast High, where he had formerly been a student himself. Dudley stayed in that role for 35 years, often drawing on principles, like fairness and respect, that he learned from Mr. Benjamin.
“He was loved by everybody who ever had any contact with him,” Dudley said. “He was a great, great person and a true, bonafide educator. He understood kids better than most people.”
Mr. Benjamin was promoted to be an area superintendent in 1974, taking on oversight of 30 schools, including Northeast. His name and face remained familiar on campus, said former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, a student there from 1978 to 1981.
“The faculty always felt like they had a friend in administration, and that wasn’t typical,” Foster added. “The guy is a legend."
Mr. Benjamin retired from the school system in 1987. But he was back within three years, announcing his run for School Board. He told reporters at the time that he wanted to improve safety and respect in schools, and create better communication lines with parents.
He won a seat in 1990, then reelection four times after that. It was bumpy ride, said former board member Linda Lerner, who joined at the same time.
“There were many difficult issues that we faced as a board,” she said. “We had severe budget cuts. We were closing schools and rezoning schools. But with (Mr. Benjamin), people trusted us because they trusted him.”
He was thoughtful about his votes as a school official, said Carol Cook, who joined the board in 2000 and now serves as vice chairwoman. He “brought all of his experiences together and thought about how his decisions would play out for students and staff.”
In 2013, the city of St. Petersburg issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 20 “Lee Benjamin Day.” It praised him for giving “wholeheartedly of himself to the betterment of this community” and leading Northeast “fearlessly ... through desegregation with a spirit of confidence and courage.”
That same year, the school district honored Mr. Benjamin by naming the Northeast High gymnasium after him. Hundreds of educators and community members poured into the building to hear officials thank him for his service.
But in an interview, Mr. Benjamin opted to thank everyone else.
“I’ve just tried to do the best I could in every job I’ve had, from coach to principal and area superintendent, and on the School Board,” he said. “It’s just been a great ride.”
Born: April 21, 1927
Died: Oct. 16, 2019
Survivors: Five children, Terry Krassner, Debbie Ramker, Leslie Mankin, Jill Piehl and Jack Benjamin; 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Service: A celebration of life will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Northeast High School’s Lee Benjamin Athletic Center, 5500 16th St. N, St. Petersburg.