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35 years later, he's leaving Gulf High School — again

Dan Barrus walked across the stage at Gulf High School in the spring of 1974, accepted his diploma and returned to his seat. In his green cap and gown, he gripped the sheepskin and offered this promise to his buddies: "I'm never coming back to this (expletive) place.''

He didn't like New Port Richey and he didn't like school. He sleepwalked his way to a C average. If not for football, he might not have made it to graduation. But on a bad team, he stood out as a hard-charging fullback nicknamed "Snowball'' because once he got rolling, he was hard to stop. He earned a scholarship to play in college.

"I was out of here,'' he recalls now. "I wasn't looking back.''

Funny how things work out.

Football didn't last and Barrus wound up at the University of South Florida studying to be a teacher. After graduation, he landed a job — at Gulf High. The man who was never coming back never left again. When he retires next month, he will have logged 35 years teaching English at the school.

• • •

The roots that now run so deep started in tragedy.

Myrton and Marcia Barrus had been happily building a family in Jamestown, N.Y., 70 miles south of Buffalo, when his legs began to fail. The diagnosis: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive disease that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Myrton could no longer work as a machinist. Marcia loaded him and their six children in a Chevrolet station wagon and moved to New Port Richey to be near his parents. In June 1971, they bought a simple two-bedroom, one-bath house on Tennessee Avenue.

Dan, at 15 the oldest of the children, enrolled at Gulf High. The family enclosed a carport to make a bedroom for his four sisters. Dan shared a room with his brother Billy, eight years younger. At school, the children were presented a red poker chip they showed for free lunch.

"When we showed that chip,'' Dan recalled, "everybody knew we were poor.''

At home, they had one small window air conditioner but rarely turned it on because they couldn't afford the electricity. Workers installed a hydraulic lift to help move Myrton.

Football offered Dan an outlet. But when the other players gathered for fun stuff after practice, he went home to help care for his father.

"I'll never forget the devotion he showed his dad,'' said Steve Persall, who played alongside Barrus and today is the Tampa Bay Times film critic. "Dan was just so adoring and caring. He was also a fierce football player.''

That earned him a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He moved from a virtually all-white high school to being the only white kid on the football team. A few months after reporting, he returned to New Port Richey for his dad's funeral. Myrton Barrus was 39.

Dan made the traveling squad as a freshman at Howard but transferred the next year to a small college in Dodge City, Kan. A knee injury ended his football career but started another.

• • •

In 1979, when Barrus signed on to teach English at his old high school, the popular TV show Welcome Back, Kotter was winding up its fourth and final season. It featured Gabe Kaplan in the title role about a teacher who returned to his alma mater. It also launched John Travolta's career, then known more for his character, Vinnie Barbarino.

"I was living Welcome Back, Kotter,'' Barrus said.

He had recently married his high school sweetheart, Robin. Soon they would have sons Danny and Jeremy. "And by then,'' he said, "I needed to stay put and earn a living, raise my kids. One thing just led to another and here I am, 35 years later.''

In that time, all his siblings and his sons graduated from Gulf High. He divorced in 1994, about the same time the school's art/photography teacher and cheerleading coach, Lisa Smith, also divorced. "We walked around the track and talked and talked,'' she recalled. "We found we had much in common.''

Four years later, they married. Dan's brother Billy, a New Port Richey police officer, stood as his best man and met one of Lisa's three sisters, Amy. They married in 2001.

• • •

On blue jeans Friday last week, Dan Barrus sported a Tampa Bay Rays jersey and rewarded his third period senior English class by baking brownies.

"Remember kids,'' he said, "if you eat standing up, there's no calories.''

They all had circled May 30 on the calendar, graduation day, retirement day. First the students must finish and discuss their last assignment: George Orwell's Animal Farm.

"So,'' a visitor asked, "what kind of teacher is Mr. Barrus?''

"He's awesome!'' volunteered Brittany Carroll, 17. "What do you expect me to say? He just gave us brownies. But, seriously, he's awesome.''

After class, Barrus hobbled downstairs to have lunch with Lisa in the cramped art department. He had one knee replaced 10 years ago and the other is hurting. "Football and motorcycles,'' he said.

Lisa is retiring, too, having been at the school since 1986. She also has a professional photography business. They said they will miss the students and staff, but not the constant political reinvention of education policy, the rigid and incessant emphasis on student testing and school grading.

"They've taken so much of the joy out of teaching,'' Barrus said. "It's time to go.''

They plan to move to South Carolina if they can sell their house in New Port Richey. He doesn't plan to come back but acknowledges the obvious: He said that before.