ST. PETERSBURG — Cynda Mort took over a new program at Melrose Elementary School in 2001 as if she had been preparing for it her whole life.
As the first coordinator of Journeys in Journalism, a partnership between the Pinellas County School District and the Tampa Bay Times, Mrs. Mort started a school newspaper and a program that would win numerous national awards at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
She did it by teaching young children to be journalists.
Mrs. Mort, a former Times editor who turned a journalism program with few resources into a national leader, died Saturday at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. She was 62. Mrs. Mort had been diagnosed six years ago with endometrial cancer and again in March with leukemia.
Journeys in Journalism, hands-on training that teaches young people to be reporters, photographers, editors and page designers by doing that work, launched officially in September 2002 and gave birth to the Manatee Messenger newspaper. In 2005, Mrs. Mort helped expand Journeys in Journalism to John Hopkins Middle. The school district opened the program at Lakewood High nearly five years ago, where it has won consecutive gold medal ratings from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association each year since.
Although some parents, the school district and the Times all played roles in forming the program, most attribute its success to Mrs. Mort, a reserved woman whose students thrived on responsibility and respect.
A report by the program's advisory committee cites Brandon Sweat, a senior at Lakewood, calling Journeys in Journalism "one of the best things that has ever happened to me."
"The program not only changed my outlook on school, it changed my outlook on life because I see things differently and more clearly than I did before," Brandon said.
Even from the beginning, the school district and the Times, which was contributing financially to the nonprofit program, squared off on whether a journalist or a teacher should lead it.
Some administrators in the school district "felt they needed an educator," said Cara Walsh, the principal at Pinellas Central Elementary who was assistant principal at Melrose in 2001. "We felt we needed a journalist. Cynda turned out to be one of the best educators I've ever known."
From the earliest days at Melrose, Mrs. Mort trained students to recognize news events and report them impartially.
In one notable story, Melrose students saw teenagers throwing rocks onto the playground. One of the rocks hit a PE coach in the head, causing bleeding.
The kids ran to Mrs. Mort.
"They said, 'There's a news story happening out there!' " said Kathleen Tobin, 53, also a former Times staffer and the wife of Times education editor Tom Tobin. "She said, 'Go do it.' "
Though far more hard-hitting than most elementary school articles, the Messenger story survived scrutiny, even at the district level, and was printed. "They had talked to administrators, teachers and kids," Kathleen Tobin said.
Born Cynda Muzzy in Fort Wayne, Ind., Mrs. Mort was one of the first to graduate from Ball State University's journalism program, with an associate's degree. Four days after graduating, she started on the features desk for the Fort Wayne News Sentinel.
She moved to Elyria, Ohio, with her husband, the Rev. Kevin Mort, 63, where she started a weekend section for the Chronicle-Telegram. She moved to the Tampa Tribune in 1980, then to the Times in 1987. She led Seniority, a Times magazine that won a 1993 statewide award from the Florida Council on Aging, and Xpress, a section for young readers.
She left the Times in 1999 to develop children's curriculum for St. Thomas Episcopal Church, but returned to journalism when the opening at Melrose came in 2001.
She taught Melrose students to find stories anywhere, to not be afraid to ask difficult questions and thank sources for answering them.
"I was impressed by the fact that when they came to talk to you, not only did they look you straight in the eye and ask you tough questions, but they had such poise," said Goliath Davis, a former St. Petersburg police chief who later served as deputy mayor.
In the summers, she enjoyed vacations in Wolfeboro, N.H., for the cool air and small-town feel. Mrs. Mort took a job as a training specialist in 2008. She retired from the school system in March after being diagnosed with leukemia.
As the program she developed flourished, praise that rained down always made her uncomfortable.
"She didn't like recognition," her husband said. "She would just roll her eyes."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected]