When Ross Spano and Tom Lee gathered for a photo in front of Brandon High last week, they joked about being less than stellar students during their days at the school.
Current principal Carl Green remarked to the two current state legislators that his students need to hear that message so they can be inspired to rise from their struggles to be great successes.
In fact, Green would welcome all the Brandon alumni who have gone on to hold public office.
"We could tell them there's hope if we could make it," Lee said wryly.
Brandon, which turns 100 next year and hosts a community celebration March 1, has produced at least nine elected officials.
Spano, who won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives in 2012, and Lee, now in his second stint as a state senator, serve along with representative Dan Raulerson in the state legislature.
Brandon's honored list of public servants also includes U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former schools superintendent and Elections Supervisor Earl Lennard and former Hillsborough County Commissioner and former state Sen. Ronda Storms as Eagles who have held office.
Why has the Eagles' Nest given birth to so many public servants?
"The fact that Brandon was the only high school in the community for a long time is part of it," Spano said. "The nature of our community, the fabric of who we were at that time has a lot to do with it. It was smaller, more close-knit."
And in an ironic twist that is as much a sign of the times as it is a statement of Brandon's communal heritage, they all are Republicans.
"If I had to guess I would say that historically eastern Hillsborough was a blue collar, independent community and by nature the tendency was to fall on the more conservative side," he said.
While some of the politicians who hail from Brandon knew they had community service in their futures, others found the calling after graduation. Whichever path they chose, they all agree that high school experiences helped prepare them in some fashion. Here are their memories:
Ronda Storms was Ronda Newcomb in 1983 when she registered to vote in the Brandon High School cafeteria, trained as a peer facilitator and wrote "controversial editorials" for the school newspaper, the Emblem, she recalled in an email. She met Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt during a commission town hall meeting and talked to her about the bribery scandal that saw three other commissioners hauled off in handcuffs .
"She saw that and wanted to bring a more honest brand of politics to Hillsborough County," said Angelo Resciniti, who taught Storms at Brandon. "She was one of the most passionate, fired-up students I ever had. She was politically astute even in high school. She saw my writing class as a way to prepare for that life."
"Getting cut from the baseball team was "a very meaningful event perhaps in a strange way because it was a blow to my ego, but it taught me a lot about adversity," Ober said of attending Brandon in the late 1960s in what is now the McLane Middle School building.
Ober, one of the first six inductees in the Brandon High School Hall of Fame in 2004, was in the Key Club leadership organization and acted as president of the Beta Club. Its 56 members "babysat" at polls on Election Day and even sponsored local band Mercy when their song Love (Can Make You Happy) climbed to No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles in 1969.
"I'm very proud of the fact that I went to Brandon and am a product of the public school system," he said. "That fact (that Brandon produced so many politicians) speaks to the quality of the education at Brandon High School."
Coming of age in 1960 as one of nine siblings, Lennard credits teachers, like Don Bishop, for helping set the foundation for his five-decade career in public service.
"We didn't have some of the accoutrements we have today," Lennard said. "We had a chalkboard, a text book and maybe a 16mm filmstrip. Some people carried slide rules on their belts. I think that it's a feeling that people who went to Brandon High School got from their teachers that we should strive to serve and better our community."
Raulerson playfully says the reason why so many elected officials have come from Brandon is that "it's in the water" and the reason they all are Republican is "because they are all smart."
But dig a little deeper and the state representative from Plant City recalls that his roles as 1975 senior class president and quarterback of the football team prepared him for his current career, whether he realized it or not.
"I guess when I was a senior it was exciting and humbling that people thought enough of me to put me in that position to serve," Raulerson said. "It taught me how to work with people and how to accomplish things for the greater good. Football taught me to continue despite whatever failures you had."
Gee recalls a youth straight out of American Graffiti. Now, his on-hold messages warn residents to report gang-related graffiti. In 1977, Gee skipped high school sports for volunteer work, putting in time with citrus, cattle and agriculture extracurricular activities.
Gee caught his service bug while riding shotgun in the HCSO Explorer Program during ride arounds.
"Every call was something different from the cat in the tree to catching an armed robbery," Gee said. "I always wanted to be a fireman or policeman. Some of us never grow up."
Mark Meadows was born in France to an Army father, moved to Brandon at 14 and one of the nearly 1,000 classmates he navigated double sessions with was David Gee, who became his hunting buddy before both entered office.
While playing tennis for Brandon and heading the sound and lighting club, he studied advanced physics and chemistry with his sights set on being a meteorologist.
"I did not have the political bug back then," Meadows said. "I can tell you that teachers have instilled in so many of us to serve our neighbors and fellow man.
"Being a teacher, a public servant in the public school system, is a higher honor than what I've been called to. My biggest regret is that I haven't been able to come back and thank them for investing in me."
Tommy, as he was called at high school in 1980, was an avid golfer with an eye toward becoming a professional.
Lee, who Gov. Rick Scott reportedly is considering for the vacant lieutenant governor spot, said since he was from Brandon, he wanted to help the region after leaving high school.
"In my case, I grew up in this community where I chose to make my life and raise my kids," he said. "Having that emotional attachment to the area, you have the care and concern that goes with that.
"I really never saw myself crossing the line and becoming an elected official. I didn't think that was a great idea, but was talked into it."
Richard, which is how his 1974 classmates may remember the man who served as St. Petersburg's mayor from 2001 to 2009, transferred to Brandon from Miami Palmetto High School around Thanksgiving of his senior year. His transcripts had to go through Tallahassee and were slow to arrive in Brandon, causing him to miss the beginning of the basketball season.
"That's when I first started disliking bureaucracy," said Baker, who intends to run for public office again after his two children finish high school in St. Petersburg. "Back then, I never thought about getting into politics."
Baker said he wished he had gone to Brandon for his entire high school experience, but thinks he knows why all the elected officials are Republicans.
"They all come out with a very high IQ," he said, jokingly.
Spano, a 1984 graduate, was president of the drama club and a show tune crooner in the Aquilla Club, He earned his law degree from Florida State University in 1998. His foray in to politics started as a middle schooler when he used to watch the news with his father, Frank, and talk about the issues of the day.
"As I grew, my dad said, 'you like to argue Ross, you should be an attorney,' " Spano recalls. "At that early age, I didn't think I had what it takes."
After graduating, Spano went to Hillsborough Community College where his dad paid for school until his grades slipped in first semester. After that, he was on his own.
"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Spano said.
While Brandon's nine elected officials are all Republicans, Nash is a Democrat and 1979 graduate who aspires for office. Nash, one of the organizers of the 100-year celebration, came up short in his bid for County Commission last year against Al Higginbotham, but intends to file early for his next campaign — perhaps for Sandy Murman's seat should she get the nod as Florida's lieutenant governor.
"People from the community who serve or want to serve, there's only one real core principle that drives you to do it, that's love," said Nash, who traces his family roots to the area back to the 1850s. "I think we can do better. I don't want to be a politician. I want to be a public servant. We have to stop electing parties and start electing people. I'm not a partisan person. I don't drive on Republican roads and stop at Democratic stop signs."
Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]
Then and now
Class of 1974
Mayor of St. Petersburg, 2002-2010
Played in the maroon and white basketball game during a pep rally, helping his team to an upset victory, which he says was a highlight of an 8-16 season. … Respected two-term mayor says he may run for office again after youngest child completes high school in 2015.
Class of 1977
Hillsborough County sheriff, 2004-present
Recalls cruising J Burns' Pizza and Dog n Suds. "Those were good days with tons of school spirit and you would go to see a football game. Now, I feel bad for these kids who haven't experienced school spirit." … Responsible for managing the 10th largest suburban law enforcement agency in the nation and an annual budget of more than $370 million.
Class of 1980
Florida Senate, 1996-2006, 2012-present
"I was never an academic scholar until I got into college, so I didn't have a strong dedication in terms of trying to have a high GPA or things of that nature," he said. … Served as the president of the Florida Senate from 2004 to 2006. Reportedly under consideration for vacant lieutenant governor position.
Class of 1960
Hillsborough County Schools superintendent, 1996-2005, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, 2009-2012
Spent the first 15 years of his 41 in the school system as a teacher. … As superintendent, oversaw the design, construction and renovation of more than 60 schools. Was appointed to be Supervisor of elections after supervisor Phyllis Busansky died in 2009.
Class of 1977
U.S. House of Representatives, North Carolina
Worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken during high school and characterized himself as a serious student. … First-year congressman won the seat vacated by Democrat and former University of Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler.
Class of 1979
Ran for County Commission in 2012
Earned the title "Ugly Man" after raising the most money to earn the first dance with the homecoming queen. … Still has political aspirations. During his last campaign, his mom, former Yates Elementary teacher Mary Lou Nash, "knew more people in that room than I did" at a campaign event.
Class of 1969
Hillsborough County State Attorney, 2000-present
Bagged groceries at Publix and survived a first-year student ritual called getting "ratted" where seniors would surreptitiously mark new students with lipstick all over their faces. "We knew to wear an old shirt to school on the first day." … Ober is recognized in the legal community as a top criminal attorney, having personally chaired more than 250 criminal jury trials, including more than 40 first-degree murder convictions.
Class of 1975
Florida House of Representatives, 2012-present
Credits Brandon chemistry teacher and senior sponsor Marie Harrell for teaching him about leadership. … First public service position came in 2007 when he was elected a Plant City City Commissioner. Served two years as Plant City mayor.
Class of 1984
Florida House of Representatives, 2012-present
Performed show tunes in Brandon's Aquilla Club. Fondest high school memory? Starring in West Side Story as senior. … Helped pass bill that will allow human sex traffic victims to petition the court to expunge arrests and convictions from their record if the acts were committed under duress from a trafficker.
Ronda (Newcomb) Storms
Class of 1983
Florida Senate, 2006-2012, Hillsborough County Commission, 1998-2006
Says she once helped toilet-paper the school the night before the senior's last day, only to discover, "that the entire display was gone before we arrived the next morning and nobody saw our handiwork." … Built strong reputation as advocate for children and elderly during Senate tenure.